Comic Books Go to the Movies

Faster than a speeding bullet, movies based on comic books are coming to a theater near you. Hollywood, which always remembers to recycle, can't seem to resist the lure of pre-sold superheroes."This is a fashionable trend of the moment," says Joe Yanarello, managing editor of Wizard the Guide to Comics, a 325,000 circulation monthly that covers the industry. "Batman and The Mask woke everyone up that these movies could be huge. You have built-in storylines and exciting plots. Comics are natural movies. And this is just the beginning."He has a point. The success of Batman, The Mask, Time Cop and Casper has inspired Hollywood to go back to the drawing board. Literally.The most recent example: The Phantom, an update of the King Features funny starring Billy Zane as the costumed crusader, Treat Williams as warped industrialist Xander Drax, and Kristy Swanson as the damsel in distress.And that's just one of the big-screen comics coming your way:* The Crow: City of Angels is a sequel to the $100-million-grossing 1994 adventure which starred the late Brandon Lee. In the follow-up, French hunk Vincent Perez takes over the title role of the mascara-wearing hero with the powers of the big, blackbird.* Batman and Robin (August '97), with George Clooney stepping into the Dark Knight's cape and cowl. Chris O'Donnell will return as Robin, Uma Thurman plays the villainous Poison Ivy and Arnold Schwarzenegger is nasty Mr. Freeze.* The Mask 2 (Summer '97) promises further adventures from Jim Carrey's shape-shifting man-about-town.* Spawn (1997) will feature the first black superhero (played by "Tyson" star Michael Jai White.) The New Line release, now in pre-production, is based on the Image Comic of the same name.* The X-Men (1997) may star Angela Bassett as Storm, a role she describes as "serious. This girl controls the weather."* Godzilla (1997) will be directed by Independence Day hot-shot Roland Emmerich.* Spider-Man, based on the Marvel comic, may begin shooting as early as 1997 under the direction of James Cameron (T2).* The Fantastic Four, from director Chris Columbus (Home Alone), brings the Marvel Comic superheroes to the screen for the second time. Expect nationwide searches for the perfect Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, Human Torch and The Thing.Visually, comic books and movies have nourished each other for years. Orson Welles once said Citizen Kane's visual style was inspired by the low angles and shadowy look of cartoons.Even before Kane, comic strips were used as fodder for feature-length films and serials. Buster Crabbe was Flash Gordon (1936), Penny Singleton was Blondie in 29 features made during the '30s and '40s, and Dick Purcell was Captain America (1944).These films were usually made on the cheap. The special effects were amateurish. The stars were B-list. 1978's Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, changed all that."Baby boomers long for these movies," says Harvey Comics owner Jeff Montgomery. "And the recent comic movies have surprised people. They haven't been cheesy, but entertaining and high-concept."Another reason why there's a glut of comic books movies is that the special-effects technology finally exists to make the impossible possible. Jim Carrey, who'll begin filming "The Mask 2" later this year, says, "I feel like a kid in a candy store. I'm at Industrial Light & Magic watching them morph my body into anything. I feel as if there's no limit to what I can do."Not all comic book heroes rely on special effects. The Phantom's Billy Zane modeled his character's posture on specific pen-and-ink drawings."Bringing emotion to action was the challenge," he says. "I pored over comics, hoping to be able to freeze and choreograph certain positions that would be reminiscent of some of the stills. It was almost like a dance. I almost approached the movie as a musical.Because family-friendly adventures like The Mask and Casper lend themselves to merchandising campaigns, success is particularly sweet for comic-book movies. Think Crow t-shirts, Spider-Man pajamas, and X-Men underwear. "Millions of dollars are on the line," notes Montgomery.Since most comic books already have loyal readerships, filmmakers can also count on a guaranteed fan base. Remember the stink Batman buffs made when Michael Keaton was announced as the movie's caped crusader. The controversy ended up helping the flick break box-office records.In Paramount's Phantom, they had a property with some parallels to Batman. Nicknamed the Ghost Who Walks, the purple-suited crime-fighter first appeared in a daily comic strip drawn by Lee Falk in 1936, a full three years before Bob Kane launched Batman. As imagined by Falk, the Phantom lives in a cave in the jungles of the fictitious Bengalla Island and devotes his life to fighting "piracy, cruelty and injustice in all its forms.""Batman definitely lifted things from the Phantom, says Zane. "But the characters are polar opposites. The Phantom is having fun fighting crime. He's not a dark, broody character. He's not the Dark Knight. He's the White Knight and he digs it."It's no surprise that the good-versus-evil scenarios of comic strips translate easily into movies. "There's a hero and there's a villain," says Carrey who played the Riddler in last year's Batman Forever. "Comic books are also very visual. The stories are high-concept and understood quickly."Which is not to say that all comic-book movies are fool-proof at the box-office. Remember such flops as Howard the Duck, The Rocketeer, Tank Girl, Judge Dredd and the recent Barb Wire?A common problem for directors and actors tackling comic books is finding the right tone. Since anything is possible, filmmakers have to decide whether they want their movies to have the look and feel of a garish nightmare (Batman), a candy-colored fantasy (Dick Tracy), a '30s serial (The Phantom) or a gothic frightfest (The Crow).There's also a temptation on the part of actors to camp up their performances. But too much humor can spell disaster. Just ask Jean-Claude Van Damme, who toplined the pen-and-ink inspired Time Cop and Streetfighter."To me, Streetfighter was a piece of s--t," he says. "And it was one of my most successful movies. But I want to do something real. I can't believe in those stories. Even Spider-Man, which is coming up. Who cares? It's not real. There's no reality about a guy who climbs buildings, or whatever he does."Zane believes it's a mistake for performers to try and adjust their acting styles to fit the live-action comics. "You think that because you're playing a comic book hero you have to do more work to make him three-dimensional. But, in fact, the Phantom had the most extensive background for research of any character I've ever played. There's 60 years of material here. It was just a question of what not to include."Some actors can't resist comic-book-films simply because their kids won't let them."I was given the option of doing Batman Forever last year," explains Tommy Lee Jones, who played the movie's villainous Two-Face Dent. "But it wasn't really a choice when I walked into my 11-year-old son Austin's room and saw a stack of Batman comics. He said, 'Dad, of course you're going to be doing this movie.'"

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