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Marvel Moves Into the Hollywood Spotlight

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Okay, now admit it: all the Spider-Man hype has given you some shivers of flash-back-to-childhood anticipation. Unless, of course, you’re the folks at Marvel Comics, publisher of the webslinger’s print exploits—in which case you’re shivering so hard you’re practically convulsing. And how can you not? Directed by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, A Simple Plan) and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, the roughly $100 million, Sony-produced film has been running neck and neck with Star Wars: Episode II as the buzz machine of the summer movie season.

Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man comic and coexecutive producer of a new animated Spider-Man series debuting on MTV this fall, recalls his reaction on viewing a rough cut of the film earlier this year. Watching right alongside Bendis was former Marvel editor in chief and chairman emeritus Stan Lee, now 79, who 40 years ago cocreated Spider-Man (not to mention the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and most of Marvel’s other classic heroes). ”I had what you’d call, um, a geek orgasm,” Bendis says, laughing. You can almost hear the multiplex crowds anxiously chiming in: We’ll have what he’s having.

Forget about the post-Batman, post-Ninja Turtles comics-to-movies frenzy of the early ’90s. These days, studios are snapping up comics material — and more significantly, actually producing it — at a rate never seen before. Vampire hunter Wesley Snipes staked his claim in Marvel and New Line’s Blade II, which has sucked up $79 million since its March 22 release. Two of this summer’s most eagerly awaited films are based on the most obscure of comic titles: Tom Hanks’ gangland saga Road to Perdition and the Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi sequel Men in Black II. Then there are the three Marvel properties heading into production almost simultaneously: X-Men 2 and Daredevil at Fox, and Hulk at Universal. All are due out in 2003.

It’s all good for Marvel — but probably just a tad consternating for their ”Distinguished Competition,” DC Comics. In the two publishers’ long-running contest to launch characters onto the screen, DC — with Superman, Batman, and the Hollywood clout of parent company Warner Bros. on its side — has always been the big winner. But 2000’s X-Men, which became a $157 million-grossing smash, leveled the playing field, and Marvel’s imminent triple-shot promises to give the company the edge.

As with the first X-Men movie, the current Marvel crop is an intriguing creative mix of Who’s Who and Who’s That? On X2 (as the Fox marketing team has already shorthanded it), director Bryan Singer and his cast return, along with some ”junior X-Men” (meet the fuzzy Nightcrawler, among others). Oscar winner Ang Lee crosses genre lines yet again to direct Hulk, a $120 million project starring relative unknown Eric Bana (Black Hawk Down) as the Jekyll-and-Hyde scientist Bruce Banner, with Jennifer Connelly and Nick Nolte in tow. The $75 million Daredevil stars Ben Affleck as the blind attorney who seeks further justice as a costumed crime fighter, with Michael Clarke Duncan as his nemesis Kingpin, and Jennifer Garner (Alias) on board as his ninja-trained love interest Elektra: ”I’m really looking forward to doing a love story,” she says. ”The scenes are really witty and romantic and sweet and always with a touch of darkness.” Garner’s deal includes options for two sequels—one of which will focus on Elektra.