And you thought action-movie heroes were already two-dimensional…. With more than 25 high-profile film projects based on comic-book characters in the works, Hollywood has fallen prey to a serious case of superhero worship. Consider what’s happening on the pulp fiction front: Barb Wire, Pamela Lee’s action feature based on the Dark Horse Comics character, opens May 3; a month later, The Phantom, with Billy Zane as the legendary purple crime fighter, hits theaters. Meanwhile, shooting has just begun on Columbia’s Men in Black, an action feature based on the Malibu Comics title about cops battling aliens, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. The lineup of Hollywood heavies looking to go back to the drawing boards goes on: Wesley Snipes is close to signing on to star in New Line’s Blade the Vampire Slayer, director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) is producing a feature based on the ultra-popular X-Men comic for Fox, and Ivan Reitman (The Late Shift) will produce and possibly direct a Wonder Woman feature for Warner Bros.
Comics have reached such a critical mass in Hollywood that even superstars want to join the superhero club. According to hot comics artist Rob Liefeld, Tom Cruise was so eager to get in on this spandex fetish that he asked Liefeld to create a comic-book concept for him. Liefeld came up with the Mark, a hero who receives superpowers from a magical tattoo. ”It’s a great story and it was very much tailor-made for [Cruise],” says Liefeld. Cruise’s production company is currently working on a script, while Liefeld is creating the comic book.
Aside from their being neat, prepackaged ideas, studios have latched on to comic-book properties for three reasons: Batman, Batman Returns, and Batman Forever. The caped crusader’s celluloid adventures, which have generated more than a billion dollars in worldwide box office grosses for Warner, have created an enviable business model for covetous competitors. (The third sequel, Batman and Robin, begins filming this September.) ”One studio told me flat out, We want a superhero action franchise,” says Liefeld. ”Something we can go back to again and again, something with tremendous licensing opportunities.” Sound familiar?
But bringing the costumed set to the big screen is no kid’s game. For every Batman-like cash machine, there’s a Judge Dredd-like money pit. The Sylvester Stallone film grossed merely $35 million domestically and a reported $75 million overseas — a disappointment for Dredd‘s production company, Cinergi, considering the movie’s $80 million production cost. ”Comic books are one of those phenomena that, if not done right, can be disasters,” says Avi Arad, president and CEO of Marvel Films. ”They can look ridiculous. And there’s too much riding on these properties to do them hastily.” Which explains why the flood of comic-book projects entering the development pipeline has, so far, resulted in only a trickle of finished films. A typical case: Two years ago, the heavily anticipated Spider-man feature was close to beginning production under director James Cameron when four different parties jumped in, claiming they owned the web crawler’s rights. To date, Spidey remains ensnared in a web of legal entanglements. ”Spiderman should be made,” says Rae Sanchini, president of Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. ”It’s a movie that the audience would want to see. It’s very, very frustrating for us.”
??The important trick is to sell the characters,” says New Line director of development Brian Witten, now turning the popular Image Comics title Spawn into a feature for New Line. ”People know Batman. Spawn [a resurrected secret agent with supernatural powers], who is one of the hottest things in the comic-book world, is a harder sell. But you take the chance and you find a way to make it work.”
Which ultimately means that enamored filmmakers aren’t likely to lay off comic-book properties anytime soon. ”We’re kids who grew up reading comic books in the ’70s,” says Roger Avary, who cowrote Pulp Fiction and who will direct Warner’s feature version of the cult comic Sandman. ”And here we are making movies. You just go with your instincts.”
Of course, there’s the distinct possibility that Hollywood, carried away with the comic craze, has exhausted the superhero well. DreamWorks has purchased from Marvel Comics the rights to something called Mort, the Dead Teenager. Yes, a dead teenager. Talk about comic relief.