LOS ANGELES — Superman has saved the day. Batman has begun again, Spider-Man will soon be spinning his third adventure and the X-Men have taken "The Last Stand." After all those big muscles, big budgets and even bigger box-office receipts, it's no surprise Hollywood is now exploring the thousands of lesser-known characters who also populate the comic book universe.
But with everyone from Nicolas Cage to Robert Downey Jr. squeezing into spandex, both the geeks and the green have to wonder: Which of these B-list heroes have what it takes to become A-list movie stars?
"They really have been on the back burner for a while," Ryan Liebowitz, owner of Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, recently explained as he looked over a list of heroes due to hit the screen soon. "But there are actual storylines going through these characters for years — 30, 40, 50, in some cases 60 years."
One such character is "Ghost Rider," first conceived in 1949 but never realized on the big screen until superstar/ biker enthusiast/ comic geek Cage decided to hop on the Hell Cycle after a mid-'90s flirtation with the Man of Steel. "He's not one of the big three: He's not Superman, Spider-Man or Batman," Cage explained. "Those characters need no introduction, and you could probably open those movies no matter how you do it, because there's an automatic audience built in. Ghost Rider needs an introduction, but he's more interesting, he's a little deeper, he's dealing with the material and the spiritual ... he's a break from the cape and the tights."
"[Ghost Rider] is a B-character, and after so many smash hits — X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman and the others — it's good to see some of these lesser-known characters get their time in the sun," said Shane Coleman, a lively employee at the L.A. comics store, though he added that he's "not a big fan of Nic Cage playing Ghost Rider. Personally, I think he's a little old."
"[Cage] came in here years ago when he was up for the Superman role, before they made 'Superman Returns,' " revealed Liebowitz, adding that it's quite common for stars like Jessica Biel ("Blade: Trinity") to come in and purchase huge stacks of comics for research. "He actually came up to the counter and said, 'Hey man, what do you think? Should I be Superman?' My answer was honest and genuine, which was 'Make sure you choose wisely which character you want to be, because it could consume you.' "
Consumption is the watchword for "Iron Man" hero Tony Stark, who'll be played by Robert Downey Jr. in Jon Favreau's film, which also stars Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow. Stark, an industrialist who has battled substance abuse and dips in popularity, has become arguably the biggest Marvel Comics hero without his own movie — until now.
"Over the years, [Iron Man] has just continued to get weighed down and weighed down," Coleman said, comparing the darkness of Stark's story to that of Bruce Wayne. " 'Demon in the Bottle' is one of the most famous stories. It's basically just showing that Iron Man is a human, and it's all about his battle with alcoholism. He's fallible."
"He wasn't bit by something, or traumatized by a flying rodent," Downey laughed. "He's just a guy, like us — except he is in an extraordinary situation, and he has to use his innovation and understanding of technology to save his own butt. ... The truth is that the technology and the mythology of a character like Iron Man is actually pretty close in hand. That brings a real interesting realism to it."
Downey has been pumping iron around the clock to prepare for the role. "I just want to look good," he said of his muscles, "so people aren't like, 'Why is Jelly Belly playing a superhero?' "
By the time all these B-level heroes have come and gone, the greatest threat to Iron Man's A-list ascension might be the Silver Surfer, who'll swoop in this summer to save the Fantastic Four in more ways than one. "He was a scientist on a planet, and this evil entity — a hungry evil force in the galaxy called Galactus — comes to his planet one day," explains "Pan's Labyrinth" star Doug Jones, who plays the Surfer. "[And the Surfer] said, 'Tell you what: Stop what you're doing, and take me instead.' "
In "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and the others will encounter the sedate silver superhero, as well as his God-like boss. "[Surfer] ends up coming to Earth and finds it a very suitable planet for Galactus to destroy and consume and eat all the energy from. It's the Fantastic Four who intercept him and say, 'Hey! Uh ... stop!' " grinned Jones. "He might be a B-list superhero as far as the public knowledge goes now, but I think he's gonna rise to A-list level."
"[Galactus] will be one of the largest CGI projects ever," Coleman marveled.
"C-list" might be a better description for Ant-Man, a founding member of superhero supergroup the Avengers — but arguably one of the goofiest heroes around.
"He's never going to be a hero in my eyes; he's never gonna be an A-lister," laughed Coleman. "The whole reason they call him Ant-Man is because he has this helmet that allows him to communicate with ants. He could either be the greatest villain ever — destroying everybody's Sunday picnics — or else he can become the greatest hero ever, making sure the ants stay away from their picnics."
It's a good thing, then, that "Shaun of the Dead" director Edgar Wright intends to make it a full-on comedy. As a result, some comics experts have a few warnings for him. "I am all for the lower-tier characters," explained writer/director/lifelong comics fan Kevin Smith. "But some of them are more interesting than others."
"It depends on how many toys the studio expects you to sell," cautioned "Batman & Robin" director Joel Schumacher, whose advice for young filmmakers like Wright is to be careful with the camp. "We were hired very much to serve a lot of that commerce ... I know some people were disappointed in 'Batman & Robin,' but we didn't try to disappoint them. It still made a lot of money and has a lot of fans."
Another hero who might toe that dangerous line is Ant-Man's Avengers colleague "Thor," whose movie is likely to begin filming next year. "Thor, in his original form in the old Jack Kirby style, could be construed as kinda goofy," Liebowitz said, holding up an old Thor comic, and then replacing it with a new one. "What they've done recently is transform him, and they've almost picked the actor who might portray him. You can see here that he looks like Triple H, the wrestler."
"He's got wings on his head," argued Liebowitz's employee, shooting down any attempts to make the Norse God seem cool. "He walks around saying, 'Nay, knave!' Who talks like that?"
You might also someday find yourself wondering who talks like "The Watchmen," a group of deep-thinking superheroes who contemplate philosophy, theology and Friedrich Nietzsche — but don't voice such statements aloud, or you might get just your ass kicked by guys in Dr. Who T-shirts. "It's the biggest fan favorite [with] comic book geeks, nerds or just fanboys," Coleman said of the '86-'87 graphic-novel series featuring obsolete superheroes uncovering the deception, infidelity and murder buried within their supposed glory days.
"I've been telling the studio, 'Listen, the thing with "Watchmen" is that it's much more like "Dr. Strangelove" than "The Fantastic Four," ' " explained fast-rising director Zack Snyder, who will helm the movie as the follow-up to his innovative Frank Miller flick "300." "Watchmen" was selected as one of Time magazine's 100 best English-language novels and Snyder said it needs to be treated with similar cinematic respect. "It's completely different from what you are used to seeing from the comic book character world," he proclaimed. "It's a stunning piece."
"If they don't do 'The Watchmen' right, there would be riots in the street," Coleman warned. "There would seriously be fanboys throwing trash cans."
One thing seems certain: Snyder will heed Schumacher's advice and not try to make his B-list superheros merely vehicles for selling memorabilia. "That would be an ironic," he said, laughing at the notion of an 8-year-old dressed for Halloween as jaded God-figure Dr. Manhattan. Likewise, Smith noted that it would be best for kids to not try to dress up as Ghost Rider. "That would be a tough one to pull off. You have to light your head on fire," he grinned.
Other B-listers hoping to step up their game soon include Nick Fury (who received a recent comic makeover to resemble Samuel L. Jackson), Deathlok, Luke Cage and the Flash. "Comic books, in their simplest nature, are storyboards which are used to make films," said Liebowitz, observing the Hollywood shoppers clogging his aisles. "We can't keep these books on the shelves."
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