By VINCENT P. BZDEK
Holy spandex, Batman.
Seventy years after the first superhero was created, primary-colored crimefighters are more popular than ever. Just ask Hollywood. No fewer than 18 big-budget movies scheduled for release this year were inspired by comic books or superheroes, including, this spring and summer, "Batman Begins," "Fantastic Four," "Constantine," "Sin City," "Ultraviolet" and "Sky High."
The boom was already well underway last year. Eight superhero movies made it to multiplexes in 2004, led by two of the year's five biggest box-office draws, "Spider-Man 2" and "The Incredibles." Together, "Spider-Man" (2002) and "Spider-Man 2" have made more than $1.6 billion in the United States, making them the sixth and eighth most popular movies ever here.
And the hero worship doesn't seem likely to stop any time soon. "Superman Returns," under the direction of Bryan Singer ("X-Men," "X2"), is scheduled for release in 2006, the first new Superman movie in 20 years. DC Comics hopes to release films of "Wonder Woman," "The Flash" and "Shazam" in the next couple of years. Its rival, Marvel Comics, has ambitious plans to bring more of its wards to the big screen, too, including "Captain America," "The Phantom," "Ghost Rider," and sequels -- or additional sequels -- to "Hulk," "X-Men" and "Spider-Man."
"If you look at the success of 'Spider-Man' and the success of 'The Incredibles,' Hollywood is saying: Hey, there's gold in them thar hills," said Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics. "The superhero genre is today's western."
Gerard Jones, who sits on the advisory board of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, recently published "Men of Tomorrow," a book that chronicles the history of superheroes, the birth of comic books and their impact on American culture.
"No other icon comes back so strong again and again after so many decades, and just keeps going," Jones said. Adults aren't embarrassed anymore about their interest in a genre that used to be regarded as kid stuff, he said, adding that superheroes are "one of the major shaping influences of pop culture."
The underlying truth
So why have tights-clad geek fantasies vaulted to the pinnacle of Mediapolis at this moment in history? And how to explain their superhuman resonance and longevity in a culture with the attention span of a newt?
For one thing, the caped crusaders have a great pedigree. The familiarity and built-in nostalgia of superheroes makes them a relatively safe bet in an increasingly risk-averse studio system, said David Cook, author of "A History of Narrative Film" and director of film studies at Emory University.
"These stories are presold," Cook said. "There's a public out there that is already familiar with the narrative and character. More and more, Hollywood tends to recycle and borrow icons from popular culture. They ran out of ideas 50 years ago."
Though a few superhero movies have bombed recently ("Catwoman" and "Elektra" come to mind), the two "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" films seem to have cured producers of their qualms about the genre after the Batman sequels went bust in the early '90s.
Another reason for the proliferation of super-films now is simply that technology is catching up to subject matter. With the evolution of computer animation, directors are finally able to realistically simulate the fantastic feats that comic artists dreamed up on pulp.
"For directors of superhero movies, it's like being in a candy store," said Peter Rainer, past president of the National Society of Film Critics and a film commentator for National Public Radio. Directors don't have to hire 20,000 extras when a city is destroyed, they don't have to build sets, they don't have to pay stuntmen. "They're doing things much cheaper than before."
At the same time, the super stunts have grown extraordinarily realistic and engaging in the past few years. Seeing Spider-Man swing convincingly through the real-life canyons of Manhattan certainly wows children, but it also satisfies a deep-seated desire of many adults to see how the movie version of their favorite superhero stacks up with the image that has been locked inside their heads since their comics-reading childhood.
That ability to cross generational lines is a large part of why superhero movies do so well when done right. Thanks to the repeat showings made possible by videos and DVD, children's movies have become one of the primary vehicles by which children and parents bond. Watching superhero movies together, the kids get to dream about being more powerful than Mom and Dad, and the parents get to laugh at the inside jokes while resampling the joys of their own childhoods.
Four of the five most lucrative movies of 2004 were nominally children's movies: "Spider-Man 2," "The Incredibles," "Shrek 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Together they made more than $1.3 billion at the box office worldwide.
Many of the shapers of pop culture today were weaned on Marvel Comics, which enjoyed its heyday 40 years ago when Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk all came into being.
"You have no idea how many closet comics lovers there are," said Avi Arad, president of Marvel Studios.
"The thing about comics and graphic novels, they're ready-made storyboards for movies," said Cook. "They lend themselves incredibly well to filmic adaptation."
Rainer calls superhero movies an "actor's holiday."
"It's fun for them to play superheroes," he said. "We all grew up reading comic books and imagining flying through the sky. For a lot of Hollywood talent, it's a real kick to do a superhero movie."
Few in Hollywood turn up their noses at superhero films these days. Christian Bale, not yet a major star, is this season's Bruce Wayne in "Batman Begins" -- but that movie will also feature Academy Award winner Michael Caine and Oscar nominees Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson, as well as director Christopher Nolan ("Memento"). Kevin Spacey has signed on to be Lex Luthor in "Superman Returns."
Well-regarded filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Bryan Singer among them, have used comic books as source material in recent work.
Kevin Smith, director of "Clerks" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," is writing and producing the upcoming "Green Hornet."