Sunday, September 21, 2003

Comic book films here for good

By Marshall Fine
Gannett News Service

Jeff Ayers gets them all the time: movie executives, casually strolling the aisles of Forbidden Planet, a comic-book superstore in New York City.

But, inevitably, they find their way to Ayers, the assistant manager - and they always have the same question.

"They're always looking for the next hot property," Ayers says.

And with good reason: Comic book movies have been a box office bonanza this year, starting with Daredevil in February and continuing through League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in July. Most of them have topped $100 million in domestic box-office; X2: X-Men United has earned more than $200 million.

Despite that success, critics have bad-mouthed many of them - and the movie-industry trade papers have pointed to the large drop-off (often 50 percent and greater) in box office gross from the films' opening weekend to its second. But to the people on the comic book side of the equation, this year's comic book movies have been a bumper crop, with bigger harvests ahead in summers to come.

Marvel alone has films either in production or scheduled that will feature the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Sub-Mariner and Iron Man - in addition to next year's Spiderman 2 and a projected X3. There are also films in the works featuring such diverse comic characters as Catwoman and Hellboy. There's no lack of material to draw upon.

"Our books offer 30 to 40 years of ongoing stories," says Avi Arad, president of Marvel Studios and chief creative officer for Marvel Entertainment, which produced recent blockbusters The Hulk, Daredevil and X2: X-Men United.

"That's 40 years of continuity. And the best and the brightest - the best writers and directors - want to work on this stuff."

Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics concurs. "What you have going on generally is that the part of popular culture that was reserved for me and my friends growing up 30 years ago - comic books - has spread to the mainstream. Comics about fantasy and science-fiction are now at the dead-center of what people are interested in."

The comic book aesthetic - with dramatic angles, outsized and super-powered action, underscored by often melodramatic personal plots - is hardly new. Nor is it confined solely to movies based on comic books. Movies such as Unbreakable and The Matrix, (the third installment opens in November) have borrowed themes, ideas and visual imagination from the comic-book universe.

The contemporary comic book movie craze started with 1978's Superman and picked up converts with 1989's Batman. Only in the past few years - as computer-generated imagery has come to look realer than real - have big-budget comic book movies become the mainstay of summer.

The advances in CG effects have meant that comic book superhero films - like fantasy and sci-fi stories - can duplicate in three dimensions almost any image that can be drawn in two. X-Men (2000) kicked off the new run, followed by Spider-Man (2002) - and the 2003 run of Daredevil, X2, The Hulk and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Stan Lee, Marvel's chairman emeritus who created most of Marvel Comics' biggest titles, points to the computer as the tool that made the movies look right: "I had a director say, 'There's nothing you can imagine that can't be put on screen," he says. But Lee believes there's more to the films' success than dazzling visual effects.

"What makes a comic book movie good is the same thing that makes any good movie," says Lee, who is executive producer of the Marvel films. "It has to ring true. You have to care about the characters. The action has to be exciting. If you feel like you've seen it before, it kills the enjoyment. If the hero is in danger and you're involved with the hero, then you're interested and excited and can't wait to find out what happens."

And it's not just fantasy comics that have piqued an interest in film executives.

American Splendor, which chronicles the life of a non-superhero, opened to critical acclaim in theaters Aug. 15. It is only the latest of the non-superhero comics to reach the big screen. Last year's Road to Perdition began as a graphic novel; so did 2001's Ghost World and From Hell.

"A ton of people went to see Ghost World and I'd say most of them didn't even know it had been a comic book," Ayers says.

"The kind of people who get involved with superhero comics don't even know who I am," says writer Harvey Pekar, who has chronicled his life as a file clerk and record collector for two decades in American Splendor's pages.

This is likely one trend we won't see an end to for some time.

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