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''X-Men'': Hit or flop?

”X-Men”: Hit or flop? — With the history of superhero misses, will the comic book film live up to the hype?

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It seems like it should be so easy.

What are comic books? Pictures and stories. What are movies? Pictures and stories. And yet, with a few, invariably debatable exceptions (some would say the first Batman; others admire The Crow; a few think Blade was underrated), most big- and small-screen superheroes are condescendingly hokey and jokey. The Rocketeer? Great, sexy comic book turned into timid, tedious movie. Batman Forever? That’s how long it seemed to take to watch it. Mystery Men? Hilarious genre parody in comics form; clueless nullity at the cineplex.

It’s no wonder that legions of comic-book devotees — some of the most impassioned fans in this or any parallel universe — have become wary of even the more promising endeavors: The upcoming X-Men movie, for example, has a big enough budget that we can assume Wolverine’s adamantium claws will really slice the air and suggest deadly menace rather than Ginsu knives taped onto someone’s wrists. But will the movie capture the brooding alienation that has lured adolescents of all ages?

Why can’t more moviemakers tap into the rich vein of the spectacular adventure-narratives the best comics provide? And why is it that TV can produce original, non-comics-based shows with a good comic book’s flair for extravagant emotion and unknowable mysteriousness (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files), while the conviction behind the vast majority of series based on actual titles (Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk) has been about as convincing as the old MAD magazine parody, ”Superduperman”? Some of the reasons — and a few humble suggestions for the long list of superheroes awaiting their close-up — follow.

You may argue with this blunt assertion, but hear us out, please: The worst thing that ever happened to the live-action superhero genre was the Batman TV show (1966 to 1968). To be sure, DC Comics’ Caped Crusader wasn’t Batmobiling off the newsstands in the psychedelic ’60s; the time was ripe for a makeover. And applying the Pop art sensibility of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to TV (the color-splashed ”Pow!,” ”Bam!,” ”Zap!” word balloons) was a novel idea. But broadly speaking, people who liked comic books hated this pun-twisting Batman. And those already contemptuous of comic books thought the show was a jolly good snicker; it confirmed to them that the superhero genre was incapable of adult concerns. (In movies, this idea was furthered when Roger Vadim took a French sci-fi strip and turned it into 1968’s sex romp Barbarella, starring his then wife Jane Fonda; on TV, it led to such travesties as the 1981-83 parody The Greatest American Hero.)

It wasn’t until 1986, when writer-artist Frank Miller turned Batman into an aging avenger and revived the nickname ”The Dark Knight,” that the character began to resonate with renewed vigor. In turn, Miller’s go-for-bleak take fed the perfervid imagination of Tim Burton, director of the best Batman movie.