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— by Larry Carroll

Like Professor X looming over the students of his School for Gifted Youngsters, Avi Arad is the father figure of Marvel Studios, studying the development of the comic company's most promising stars and deciding when — and how — they will get their chance to dazzle moviegoers.

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Regularly ranked among Hollywood's most powerful executives, Marvel's chairman and CEO is a prime mover behind the current cinematic-superhero renaissance and is currently mapping out the future of nearly 5,000 — yes, 5,000 — Marvel characters. With D.C.'s "Batman Begins" currently heating up the age-old comic book rivalry on the big screen, and Marvel's "Fantastic Four" on the horizon (opening July 8), Arad recently took some time to reflect on the future of his enormous cast of heroes and villains, and the traditions that he's charged to uphold.

"We have a tradition of Stan Lee being in all our movies," explains the mogul-stereotype-bashing Arad, north of 60 but casually dressed in a "Fantastic Four" baseball hat. Offering a rare glimpse of what's to come, Arad discusses a scene from the highly anticipated film that features a cameo by Lee, a legend in the comic book business and, not incidentally, the creator of the "FF" characters.

"He'll be the mailman," Arad continues. "It's interesting, because he looks the way it was drawn. Stan is a character ... initially he was supposed to say, 'Good morning, Mr. Richards,' and then he kept adding more words."

After "Fantastic Four," Lee will likely make his next cameo in "X-Men 3," which recently landed "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner along with a release date of May 2006.

"I've never seen a reaction like that," Arad says of the Internet buzz that erupted after the casting of Kelsey Grammer as Beast was announced. He also confirms that Vinnie Jones (Bullet Tooth Tony from "Snatch") will play Juggernaut and that the cast from the first two movies are "all coming back." Regarding Jean Grey's possible evolution at the end of the last movie, however, Arad says, "Dark Phoenix should not be the centerpiece of the movie."

Arad will also oversee two spinoffs from the "X-Men" series: one about Magneto ("It's being written. It's going to be a smaller movie, [but] very true to the origin") and a "2007/2008" film with Wolverine ("Totally different, just Wolverine's journey"). The Magneto film will star an actor much younger than the one we're used to seeing, but that doesn't mean that the man who originated the role for the big screen is on the outs.

"I will always want Ian McKellen," Arad says. "There's no way for me to think of not walking into the story through him — through something happening now, and then going back there. Ian is an ambassador for this, and he needs to be there."

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

Next up is the August 2006 release of "Ghost Rider," the big-budget Nicolas Cage movie Arad refers to as a "morality tale." The film faces the huge challenge of making a fiery, murderous, flaming-skull-headed creature sympathetic to audiences. Arad says it will have a PG-13 rating and a "Southern rock" soundtrack and ethos, and that one scene will feature the motorcycle-riding protagonist facing the unlikely challenge of a tidal wave.

"I remember seeing 'The Perfect Storm,' how the whole wave was CGI. You're going to see something [similar] in 'Ghost Rider.' " While he reveals that Ghost Rider will, at some point, be entirely submerged, Arad vows that the infamous grinning skull will continue to flame on. "Nothing can extinguish it," he smiles. "It's hellfire."

Arad will then target "Spider-Man 3," due in theaters in May 2007. While insisting that rumors of a simultaneous third and fourth "Spider-Man" movie shoot are simply "not true," Arad did confirm that Dylan Baker will return for the third film — a noteworthy nugget for comic fans who recall that Baker's handicapped character, Dr. Curt Connors, went on to become Spider-Man nemesis the Lizard in the comic books. Although Thomas Haden Church and Topher Grace are set to play the main, as-yet-unnamed villains of the third film, the seeds are apparently being planted for Spidey to also someday take on a superhumanly strong, green-scaled monster.

And after Spidey's return? Well, this is when things begin to get a bit fuzzy in the Marvel production slate, but one thing is certain: The company will soon begin making its own movies. In a groundbreaking deal, Paramount will distribute up to 10 of those films, including "Captain America" and "Nick Fury."

"The Ant-Man is also in there, a 'Honey I Shrunk the Superhero' kind of story," Arad says. Dr. Strange is also in the works, as well as a movie version of Black Panther, "which is a big, big, big deal. When you say '10,' some of them may be sequels."

As for the comic book icon with the red, white and blue shield, Arad argues that, next to Spider-Man, "Captain America is the most famous character out there, by name. The biggest opportunity with him is as a man 'out of time,' coming back today — looking at our world through the eyes of someone who thought the perfect world was small-town America. Sixty years go by, and who are we today? Are we better?

"I have a writer," he says. "And I have someone in mind to be the star, and I definitely have someone in mind to be the director. This script is going to take a little bit of time, because it has to be a masterpiece. It's 'Back to the Future' kind of stuff."

Also in the mix is "Silver Surfer," an ambitious project that Arad insists will move along "pretty fast. Silver Surfer, from a spectacle standpoint, is second to none. It's 'Independence Day' meets Marvel, times 10." A major announcement about the film is due relatively soon.

 "There is a director who should make 'Silver Surfer' — he is mentally committed to it." — Avi Arad

"There is a director who should make 'Silver Surfer' — he is mentally committed to it. He's doing another movie now. What's most important to me about this guy, first, is that he's incredible with visuals. But he's also a spiritual guy, a Zen Buddhist." Arad also confirms that the enormous planet devourer Galactus will be in the movie, but chances are he'll be all-CGI. "Galactus is a force of nature, not a being. That's all I'm saying."

Other properties, meanwhile, have been taking long, circuitous routes to the screen. Arad says Marvel is "very close" to striking a deal for the long-discussed "Iron Man" movie. "It's been a war with [co-producers] New Line Cinema. I had a four-hour meeting with ['The Notebook' director] Nick Cassavetes in my house. If everything is cool, in the next few weeks there'll be an announcement about Nick writing it. Nick has a unique emotional attachment to Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark. Think about John [Cassavetes] and Nick, father and son — the father was a great visionary director, and here's the son, an actor and a writer and turned out to be a very gifted artist himself." The parallel with Iron Man/ Tony Stark, who in the comic books has issues dealing with the success of his own father, evidently pleased Arad.

As for a sequel to 2004's "The Punisher," Arad confirms that Jigsaw will be the villain and that, with the first movie, "blood and intestines should have been blown out on the wall, because that's the Punisher." He added that the sequel will be among a handful of Marvel films with an R rating.

" 'Punisher,' of course. Maybe 'Cloak and Dagger.' I think 'Shang Chi' we can do PG-13, and 'Iron Fist' maybe an R. 'Luke Cage,' I don't know. Big studio movie. We'll try and do PG-13."

Arad then speaks like a proud papa of films about Cage (John Singleton's directing; Jamie Foxx had been considered for Diamondback, who will definitely be the villain); Nick Fury ("I'm going back in time. I'm going back to the classic on this. It's about him; it's about SHIELD"); Thor ("We are feverishly working on Thor. It's a vast 'Lord of the Rings' sort of universe"); Deathlok ("There is an actor, a very big star, that we want to do it, and we'll talk to him within a month"); and Namor. Comparing the last film to "Jurassic Park," Arad says, "a lot of design work has been done on it. The script is gigantic."

Every movie appears to be accompanied by an anecdote, as with "The Black Widow." "It's going to be ['X-Men' writer] David Hayter's directorial debut. The script just came in, and we are doing what we always do with scripts — in this case, driving the writer/director crazy. David is very imaginative. Actually, his firstborn is named Natasha [Black Widow's human name is Natasha Romanov], so we think he is committed to the project."

Of course, there are plenty of Marvel superheroes currently in a state of superlimbo after audiences received their first film adventures with mixed responses.

Photos: Marvel Comic Superheroes

"It's no secret, we took a lot of sh-- for Ang Lee's 'Hulk,' for all the wrong reasons," Arad says, insisting that "I had a meeting with Universal [a few] weeks ago. We are going to make a Diet Hulk." Comparing Hulk to the classic image of Frankenstein's monster as a creature with an almost childlike curiosity, Arad says, "In movie one, we couldn't get into the curiosity thing. Hulk having a butterfly land on his hand? He would never [smash it]. The Hulk would be curious. He is like a baby, in a way." He says the sequel will arrive in theaters "no later than 2007."

Arad also insists that he would love to make a second, darker "Daredevil" movie: "I would make it in a second, as soon as could I get the rights back. We licensed it. If they'll give us the rights back, we'll make the movie." And then, of course, there's Daredevil's girlfriend, for whom Arad wears a cautionary red Lance Armstrong-type bracelet on his wrist, reminding him of past mistakes.

"I think Elektra is on ice now," he admits somberly, before suggesting one way a sequel might return the character to her comic book roots: "If we could do her à la the 'Sin City' idea — whoa."

Arad says the recent reinvigoration of Batman and DC Comics' upcoming slate of Superman and Wonder Woman movies doesn't scare him. "You know what we are?" Arad says of his company. "We're the best storytellers you'll find. And to us, our characters are alive."

If Arad's store of ideas is anything to go by, it seems likely that Marvel will be telling cinematic stories for quite a few years to come.

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