A look at the coming wave of hero mania

While Hollywood is hammering out a new Man of Steel, the next two years will see a crush of movie superheroes, both familiar characters and newcomers to the multiplex. Jon Favreau, who made two blockbusters out of the second-string hero Iron Man, understands the challenges. ”People were saying, ‘Nobody knows who Iron Man is.’ They were saying, ‘The genre had been played out. Now they’re trotting out the B-level titles. Is anybody going to care?”’ recalls the director, who is following last year’s Iron Man 2 with this July’s superhero-free adventure Cowboys & Aliens. Favreau left the neighborhood of comic-book adaptations just as it was getting especially crowded. ”People have now rushed to monetize every character, digging up characters from all of the publishers,” he says. ”Some will succeed and some won’t.” Here’s a look at the coming wave of hero mania.

June 17 2011

A magical alien ring, the power to create glowing ethereal objects out of nothingness, and a skintight power suit that allows flight through outer space: Green Lantern’s traits are difficult enough to pull off in ink-and-paint comic panels, but try doing it in a live-action movie tethered to some semblance of reality. Ryan Reynolds stars as jet test-pilot Hal Jordan, who’s recruited into an intergalactic police force with Earth as his beat. The draw for the audience may be that, like filmgoers, Jordan doesn’t entirely comprehend his mission. The 34-year-old star says it helps that DC’s Green Lantern isn’t as widely known outside Comic-Con circles. ”I liked that it wasn’t in my vocabulary. It meant there was a process of discovery,” says Reynolds. ”He’s not in the mainstream the way Superman or Spider-Man is.” The movie also tackles its otherworldly extravagance with a sense of humor. Reynolds, a veteran of comedies like Van Wilder and The Proposal, says he used to think of himself as a strictly comic actor, not a hero: ”I looked like Dick Van Dyke, so I thought I was going that route.”

May 6, 2011

Thor is a mythic golden Norse god, and he knows it. Cast out of the heavenly realm for his belligerent arrogance, the hammer wielder (played by Chris Hemsworth) is disgusted to find himself banished to Earth, a name he pronounces the way a picky little kid would say ”brussels sprouts.” How relatable is this guy? Thor scoffs at the assumption that we might even try to relate to him. At least, that’s how he starts off in the movie. Natalie Portman, as an astro-physicist, gradually helps warm him to the human race.

Director Kenneth Branagh may not have much geek cred, but Thor shares some traits with the title character in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Branagh’s 1989 film adaptation earned him Oscar nods for acting and directing). Says Branagh, ”People are fascinated by a young man, entitled, an elder son, firstborn, who has a great job but isn’t necessarily cut out for it, where the pressure to be the best and live up to something is so extraordinary.” Playing noble should be no problem for Hemsworth, 27. Though he’s a relative newcomer in Hollywood, the Aussie actor made a memorable impression as James T. Kirk’s self-sacrificing father in the prologue to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot.

X-Men First Class
June 3, 2011

After three movies and a Wolverine spin-off, 20th Century Fox chose to step backward in time for the new X-Men movie, tracing the early friendship of Professor X and Magneto, now played by James McAvoy (Wanted) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds). The plot, set during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, focuses on how these onetime allies formed two warring factions while helping stave off nuclear war. The retro setting is a homecoming of sorts for the characters, explains Emma Watts, Fox’s president of production: ”That’s when the X-Men were created.”

July 22, 2011

Captain America may be famed for his muscle-bound frame, but his origins are decidedly more humble. ”He’s a 98-pound weakling,” says director Joe Johnston (The Wolfman). Cap starts out as a below-average Joe named Steve Rogers, and doesn’t forget what it’s like to be bullied even after he gets the super-soldier injection that turns him into one of the world’s greatest warriors. (Digital effects will put the face of the physically impressive Chris Evans, 29, onto a scrawny body for the opening reel.) In the WWII-set film, Cap must battle Hitler’s horrifyingly disfigured weapons specialist Red Skull (The Matrix‘s Hugo Weaving).

”The thing that appeals to me is that he’s Everyman,” says Johnston. ”All he really wants to do is the right thing and serve his country, and [at first] nobody wants him because he’s too weak. He was picked on all his life, but this is a guy who never gives up.” Evans, who previously costarred in Marvel’s Fantastic Four franchise as the cocky human flame Johnny Storm, must maintain a tricky balance of innocence and strength. ”For Steve Rogers, it’s a very personal thing,” says Johnston. ”At one point he says, ‘I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”’

May 4, 2012

All you need to know about The Avengers is the roll call: Robert Downey Jr. as arrogant Iron Man, Chris Evans as modest Captain America, Samuel L. Jackson as angry one-eyed spymaster Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson reprising her seductive Iron Man 2 role as Black Widow, Chris Hemsworth as god-among-men Thor, Mark Ruffalo as the human half of the Incredible Hulk, and Jeremy Renner as the archer Hawkeye, a character we haven’t seen yet on film. It’s a superhero-palooza, and writer-director Joss Whedon (the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has a strong track record of telling ensemble stories with a distinct sense of humor. ”The fact that they are all so different is what will make it exciting,” says Captain America director Joe Johnston, whose interest in The Avengers is strictly as a fan. ”There is an opportunity for a lot of conflict within the group. There’s gotta be. It’s not the Boy Scouts.”

TBA 2012

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), the unlikely director of Hugh Jackman’s next outing as the clawed X-Man, has said fans shouldn’t expect a sequel to 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine but a stand-alone tale that chronicles the character’s adventures with samurai. The only common thread is Jackman, 42, who starred in Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain. ”The danger with superhero movies is the audience gets peeved if it’s more of the same,” says Fox production president Emma Watts. ”Darren’s approach is definitely not the same old, same old.”

July 20, 2012

Fans have relentlessly tried to guess which direction Christopher Nolan intends to take Christian Bale’s Dark Knight in the director’s final Batman film, but the filmmaker has offered scant hints. Nolan has confirmed he won’t add the Riddler or bring back the Joker, out of respect for the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning work in The Dark Knight. But in recent weeks, he has cast Inception costar Tom Hardy as Bane, a chemically enhanced strongman who broke Batman’s back in the 1993 comics, and Inception alumni Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are in talks for unspecified roles. Anne Hathaway is also on board as Selina Kyle, though Nolan’s casting announcement made no mention of Kyle’s alter ego, Catwoman. With all the cryptic clues, Nolan has already achieved the goal of every superhero film: keeping an audience in a state of perpetual suspense. And he hasn’t shot a single frame of film.

July 3, 2012

The new Spider-Man will test the limits of comic-book do-overs. Although 2007’s Spider-Man 3 wasn’t particularly beloved, the webslinger franchise under Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi had not collapsed in a way that typically triggers a complete reboot. Yet when Raimi declined to meet Sony’s deadline for a fourth film and dropped out, the studio decided to start from scratch. In came (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb and a new actor to wear the red-and-blue Spidey suit: The Social Network‘s Andrew Garfield, 27. Exec producer Avi Arad says the film won’t erase what came before but will try to weave a narrative that could take place within the framework of the earlier films. ”It’s not a comeback,” he says. ”You have to look at it this way: Do you want to know more about Spider-Man? This movie is going to tell stories that you didn’t see in movies 1, 2, and 3.”