Springing superheroes from the printed page to the big screen isn't always successful, creatively or financially. But studios keep on churning out "super-smashes" and "super-bombs" alike, hoping that each "biff," "bang" and "pow" is matched by the "ka-ching" of cash registers.
Beginning with the multipart serials of the '30s and '40s - which featured, among others, the Americommando, Captain America, the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, on top of those starring Superman and Batman - Hollywood producers have put a veritable "super-squadron" of heroes on the screen.Interest in the idea waned after the 1966 "Batman" film with Adam West (based on the TV series) flopped. But when "Superman" was given slick Hollywood treatment in 1978, big ticket receipts followed. In fact, "Superman" and the best of its three sequels, "Superman II," sold enough movie tickets to place both among the top 100 biggest-moneymaking films of all time in the United States.
As a result, U.S. film companies went hero-crazy.
There have been at least two dozen comic book-to-film projects since 1980, many of them extremely successful. The three contemporary "Batman" films all made enough money to place in the top 40. The first "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film and "The Mask" each made well over $100 million in the United States alone.
Perhaps no one understands more than the creators what is responsible for our fascination with superheroes and the subsequent movies. Lee Falk, who came up with one of the first recognizable masked heroes, "The Phantom," believes their appeal is universal.
"When I was a kid, I loved tales of gods and heroes - Thor, Ulysses, Rolanz, the knights of the Round Table," Falk recently told the Associated Press.
A sense of humor doesn't hurt either. Unfortunately, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam's adaptation of "The Phantom" comic strips wasn't nearly funny or thrilling enough, which might be why it landed with a thud.
That film is not alone, however. In many cases, the term "super-duds" doesn't refer to their costumes, but rather to the films' financial and creative performances. For every "Batman" there's been a dreadful "Judge Dredd," a pale version of "The Shadow," a lame-duck "Howard the Duck" or - worst of all - a "Swamp Thing."
Some projects - such as "The Punisher" and "Captain America" - turned out so badly they went straight to video. "Fantastic Four" was even worse, evidently such a clinker that Marvel Comics officials tried to destroy all existing copies.
That hasn't stopped Hollywood, of course - or the stars themselves - from undertaking the films. Christopher Reeve will remain the "real" Superman in many fans' hearts. Elsewhere, "E.R.'s" George Clooney looks to get even hotter after he steps into Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton's Batman boots for "Batman and Robin."
Such films can break stars too. Pamela Lee will be lucky to survive the critically savaged (and largely audience-ignored) "Barb Wire."
That awful movie, which adapted the equally awful Dark Horse comic book, kicked off this year's hero onslaught.Simon Wincer's dull version of "The Phantom" comic strip quickly followed but faded fast at the box office. "The Crow: City of Angels," the sequel to the smash hit, is due to hit theaters later this summer.
James Cameron (the "Terminator" films) has long tried to adapt a version of "Spiderman," but it won't be swinging into theaters anytime soon. It looks to be delayed until the end of the century because of legal problems.
There will be plenty of hero films to make up for it, though. Among the most interesting comic-book or masked-hero film projects currently in development are:
- "Batman and Robin." The fourth installment of the series, due next year, stars Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Alicia Silverstone and, playing a villain, Mr. Freeze, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- "The Incredible Hulk." This time, producer Gale Ann Hurd (the "Terminator" movies) promises to treat Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Jekyll-and-Hyde creation kinder than the TV series, which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.
- A live-action version of "The X-Men," which is already a smash Saturday-morning cartoon.
- Yet another "Zorro" film, with Antonio Banderas starring as the swashbuckler.
- John Singleton's take on the "Luke Cage: Power Man" comic books.
- "The Fantastic Four." Though one version of "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine" was filmed in 1993 and never released, a newer, bigger-budgeted, take written and directed by Chris Columbus ("Home Alone") is in the works.
- "Sandman." A celluloid version of Neil Gaiman's acclaimed comic (about the King of Dreams) helmed by Roger Avary, who co-wrote "Pulp Fiction" and directed "Killing Zoe."
While there are still hundreds of heroes who are film-ready, Hollywood has found a successful formula in sequels or spinoffs. In addition to "Batman and Robin," a "Catwoman" flick (supposedly reuniting director Tim Burton and star Michelle Pfeiffer of "Batman Returns") is in the planning stages, and both "The Mask II" and yet another "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" installment have already been written and are just waiting to go before the cameras.
Those latter two comic books and films have also been Saturday-morning cartoons. Batman, Spi-der-man and now Superman have gotten their own Saturday-morning cartoons.
Of course, Hollywood is returning the favor, with live-action projects in development of such TV cartoons as "Archie" "Bike Mice From Mars," a "Dennis the Menace" sequel, "Dudley Do-Right," "The Jetsons," "Jonny Quest," "Mr. Magoo" and "Scooby Doo," showing that there's no telling when and where the trend will end.