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— by Karl Heitmueller

Spider-Man. Batman. Superman. The Fantastic Four. Daredevil. Hulk. Spawn. Wonder Woman. Hellboy. Ghost Rider. Iron Man. X-Men. The list goes on and on of comic book superheroes who either have made or are making the leap to the CGI-fueled world of the big screen. Sometimes it's done right. (Thank you, Richard Donner, Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer.) Sometimes it's not. (Curse you, Tim Burton, Mark Steven Johnson and Joel Schumacher.)

Here, then, is a handy reference guide for filmmakers on the right way to do a superhero movie based on a comic book.

Be Faithful, Not Slavish

The template for a successful superhero movie was set in 1978 by "Superman: The Movie," Richard Donner's elegant take on the last son of Krypton. What made the movie work so well was Donner's decision to play it straight, to remain truthful to the spirit of the comics. Verisimilitude, or believability within context, was the goal. And, rather than laughing, we believed a man could fly.

 Read: " 'X-Men 2:' Return Of The Mutants"

We're not arguing that a superhero movie should be a slavish reproduction of the comic, à la Frank Miller's and Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City." Movies and comics are different animals with different artistic needs. What works on the printed page doesn't always translate to the screen. Director Bryan Singer (an avowed acolyte of Donner's Superman film) made the right decision in "X-Men" (2000) when he opted to replace the characters' traditional colored superhero costumes with matching leather jumpsuits. But because that movie — and its superior sequel, "X2" — so perfectly captured the essence of Marvel's mutant outcasts, fans didn't mind.

Compare that with 2004's Razzie Award-winning "Catwoman," a movie that had nothing whatsoever to do with the DC Comics anti-heroine other than a title: even her alter ego was changed. Why bother with licensing a character if you're going to ditch everything and start completely fresh? Name recognition alone is only going to get so many people into the theater — as this turkey proved.

Mark Steven Johnson's "Daredevil," on the other hand, tried too hard to recreate that comic book. Cramming years' worth of storylines from the Marvel comic along with the requisite exposition (more on that later) into one movie, "Daredevil" couldn't possibly live up to the source, even without its across-the-board bad casting (more on that later, too).

 Read: "Ben Affleck Dares To Dream 'Daredevil' "

Trust The Source

Perhaps if Johnson had only chosen one storyline from the comics, "Daredevil" would've fared better. Rare is the superhero movie that actually adapts a non-original tale from its comic-book source. Perhaps it's condescension on the part of the filmmakers, or the desire to keep comic book writers out of the Screenwriter's Guild. But the fact remains, DC Comics has published dozens, if not hundreds, of tales pitting Batman against the Joker that were far superior to Tim Burton's plodding 1989 film. Can anyone even remember exactly what the Joker's evil plan was in "Batman?" Besides earning a big paycheck?

But Burton's known for not being able to tell a story, adapted or otherwise. What's more puzzling is why Guillermo del Toro, a huge fan of Mike Mignola's comic book "Hellboy," likewise didn't trust the source when making his 2004 adaptation. By adding the character of John Myers, the non-mutant agent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, del Toro was trying to give the audience its own surrogate, the normal guy we all can relate to. (Myers also made possible the superfluous love triangle with Hellboy and Liz.) But all it did was dilute the atmosphere. The only scene in "Hellboy" that came close to capturing the gothic feel of the comic was when Ivan's corpse is revived to guide the characters through the cemetery.

 Read: "Cameo: Xzibit Interviews Tobey Maguire"

If the characters are interesting enough to translate to the big screen, shouldn't some of the stories follow suit? "Spider-Man 2" used the "Spider-Man No More!" story by Stan Lee from issue #50 of the comic book as inspiration, and that movie is considered by many to be the best superhero movie to date.

Don't Clog Up The Plot

The biggest problem with most comic book movies is there's so much exposition required that it becomes difficult to squeeze in a decent story. For every costumed hero and villain, there has to be an origin before the fists start flying. Unlike a regular drama where vital stats usually give you enough background to get rolling, if the character can fly and wears a funny costume, you gotta delve into that a little bit. (The X-Men movies managed to get around this problem in one fell snikt, er, swoop: They're all mutants. Let's move on.)

But these movies are often primarily about the marketing. After "Batman" became a merchandising behemoth in 1989, the studios quickly realized that more characters = more tie-ins, and since nobody's clamoring for the Commissioner Gordon action figure, most comic book flicks since have featured more than one villain. In 1997's "Batman & Robin," three heroes (Batman, Robin and Batgirl) battle three villains (Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Bane). Not that Joel Schumacher's DayGlo nightmare didn't have its share of other problems, but with all the good-guy/ bad-guy exposition, there wasn't room for a strong, or even a very reasonable, plot.

By contrast, Spidey fights only Doc Ock in "Spider-Man 2," leaving plenty of time for the film to delve into the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane — a relationship which is really the soul of Sam Raimi's movie. Inevitably, though, rumor has it that an extra adversary will be added to the mix of "Spider-Man 3" (see "Topher Grace Joins Cast Of 'Spider-Man 3' ... But As Who?"). But that doesn't have to toll the death knell for great Spidey movies: there is a way to satisfy the marketing execs without cluttering up the picture.

NEXT: Take some cues from 007 — and fer chrissake stop trotting out those creaky old 'stars' ...
Photo: Karl Heitmueller

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