Incredible bulk of superheroes ready to bust out this summer

The superhero summer is heating up, and the papers are starting to hop on their popularity. USA Today's frontpage has the Hulk screen shot right on the front. And their summer movie preview is online with a great deal on Universal's The Hulk, as well as b
There was a time in Hollywood when movie heroes were good-looking, well-spoken — and human.

Actor Hugh Jackman as Wolverine attacks in a scene from the movie "X2," the sequel of "X-Men."
By Kerry Hayes, Twentieth Century Fox

Today, it is hard to find one that hasn't been splashed with gamma rays or radioactive waste, mutated by freak genomes or built out of metal and microchips. Even those who look like normal men and women are often digitally re-created to perform the impossible stunts of superheroes.

So it goes with the new breed of comic-book films, which will dominate this summer like none before. Though the season always brings its share of spectacle and sequels, few have been so focused on a single genre — particularly one once known for cheap leotards, suspension wires and corny dialogue.

Yet no fewer than nine movies are due this summer that either sprang from comic books or spawned their own. Some bring the clout of superheroes who have been on TV shows and magazine stands for decades. Others will struggle to find an audience beyond comic-shop regulars.

All are hoping to tap into the public fervor — and profits — touched off by last year's Spider-Man, which snagged $403.7 million.

It's a huge gamble for Hollywood, which has spent more than $1 billion to produce and market this summer's comic-book films. Moviegoers have turned on the genre before, vanquishing Superman in the 1980s and Batman in the 1990s after four films each when Warner Bros. strayed from faithful comic story lines in favor of camp. (The studio is trying to revive the two D.C. Comics legends with promises of plotlines that are more serious.)

A strong summer is crucial for Hollywood because it accounts for nearly 40% of ticket sales for the year. So far, box office receipts lag 13% behind 2002.

But executives are betting that moviegoers' appetite for fantastic fare is as boundless as the stories that spring from illustrated pages. Among them:

X2: X-Men UnitedThe sequel launches the season May 2. Based on Marvel Comics' best-selling franchise, it reunites the original cast of Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry, who propelled the original film to$157.3 million in 2000.
The Matrix Reloaded. The most anticipated movie of the summer opens May 14 and revisits the dark, computer-controlled world created by former comic-book writers Larry and Andy Wachowski. The film, a sequel to the 1999 hit that sparked a popular online comic and grossed $171.4 million, will be followed by The Matrix Revolutions on Nov. 5.
The Hulk. Director Ang Lee, who dabbled in action with 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, goes full-tilt in the story of Dr. Bruce Banner, belted by gamma rays. The film, based on one of Marvel's most enduring series, hits theaters June 20.
The superhero parade also includes the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3: Rise of Machines, out July 2, and Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life on July 25. Both spawned popular comic books. The League, based on the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, features characters including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man as crime fighters. It arrives July 11.

It won't all be high-profile stuff. The Princess Blade, a Japanese film based on a 1970s comic about a sword-wielding warrior, hits select U.S. theaters Aug. 8. Even comic-book writers are hot property: Washington Heights, out May 9, and American Splendor, due Aug. 15, tell the stories of blue-collar stiffs struggling to make it as comic-book authors.

"I get calls every day from studios asking what characters we have that could become a movie," says Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios, which owns rights to X-Men, Hulk and the granddaddy of all comic-book films, Spider-Man. (Its sequel, due in 2004, is now shooting.) "It doesn't matter how unknown the comic is. They want it."

Marvel has optioned more than a dozen comic-book movies, and no title seems too obscure. Ever heard of Mort the Dead Teenager? You will. The niche series about a mischievous teenager stuck in purgatory will hit screens in 2005, produced by professed comic-book geek Quentin Tarantino.

But will audiences stick around? Some executives worry that the rush to adapt comic books could doom the genre. "All it takes is a few directors who are just looking to make a profit on a title," Arad says. "Comic-book fans aren't like other movie people. They'll turn on you if you aren't true to their books. Then it's all over."

Old formula, new technology

To hedge their bets, studios are targeting an audience beyond the core comic demographic of white teen males. An increasing number of cinema superheroes will be women: Jennifer Garner, who played Elektra in this year's Daredevil, is scheduled to get her own film. Halle Berry is considering playing Catwoman, who finally gets to swing solo.

So far, the strategy has paid off. Daredevil's audience was 46% female, unusually high for a second-tier comic hero. Spider-Man's audience was almost half female.

X2, which features Berry, Anna Paquin and Famke Janssen as superheroes, "is an example of what we do better now," says Lauren Shuler Donner, who produced the film. "You've got to make comic-book heroes more accessible to a general audience. If the girls don't connect with a hero, you won't be around for the long term."

At least not as long as the comic-book genre, which has been a staple of TV and cinema for decades. The Batman, featuring B-movie hunk Lewis Wilson as the caped crusader, hit screens in 1943. The man of steel had his feature-film debut in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men.

So why the recent crush of titles? Some experts cite the zeitgeist of the times.

"Just as Batman and Superman were born of World War II, today's times make comic-book movies very appealing," says Liam O'Brien, an associate professor of media and philosophy at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "People want a superhero that can take care of these world problems, and Hollywood is offering up just that."

Many of those in Hollywood, though, say the answer is simpler than that. "The secret about this industry is that it is full of nerds," says Don Murphy, producer of The League. "We grew up with comic books. I can't tell you how many times you'd overhear a conversation that went something like, 'Remember Spiderman No. 104? Wouldn't it be great if we could put that on screen?' Now we can."

Indeed, technology has allowed filmmakers to match the stunning visuals of today's comics. Mark Steven Johnson, director of this spring's hit Daredevil, litera
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