Tri­umph fan­boys of the

The su­per- sized suc­cess of su­per­hero movies lies in their abil­ity to trans­form adults into ado­les­cents and vice versa, writes Lyn­den Bar­ber

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

WHEN Hol­ly­wood stu­dio Warner Bros an­nounced re­cently it was plan­ning to make fewer movies, it added an all-im­por­tant pro­viso: of those it did make, a big­ger pro­por­tion would be based on comic book char­ac­ters. Which raises the ques­tion among those not yet won over to the es­sen­tially teenage ap­peal of su­per­heroes: What ex­actly is it about movies about men in face masks and tight un­der­pants that has Hol­ly­wood sali­vat­ing?

Money by the truck­load is one ob­vi­ous an­swer. Af­ter this year’s as­cen­sion to the box-of­fice heav­ens of the lat­est Bat­man movie ve­hi­cle, The Dark Knight , the quest is on to pro­duce the next global money-spinner. Warner, the stu­dio be­hind that mega-hit, and its ri­vals are de­ter­mined to have a hefty slice of the action.

The first at­tempt is nearly upon us. On Jan­uary 8, in­de­pen­dent stu­dio Lion­s­gate will launch The Spirit , di­rected and writ­ten by Frank Miller, some­thing of a su­per­hero him­self to comic book fans be­cause of his rein­ven­tion of the Bat­man comic-book char­ac­ter in the 1980s and his noir-ish Sin City comic books ( plus the 2005 movie, which he co-di­rected). Star­ring new­comer Gabriel Macht along­side Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and Sa­muel L. Jack­son, the vis­ually stylised film con­cerns a dead cop who comes back to life to fight crime.

Mean­while, Para­mount has been heav­ily pro­mot­ing a movie based on the ’ 80s cult Watch­men char­ac­ters, al­though it is not due un­til March. The film’s di­rec­tor, Zack Sny­der — who di­rected the comic book-based his­tor­i­cal ad­ven­ture 300 — gave a pre­sen­ta­tion of un­com­pleted clips to jour­nal­ists in Syd­ney last month. And thanks to a deal with the film pro­duc­tion divi­sion set up by DC’s tra­di­tional ri­val, Marvel Comics, it has a slew of other ti­tles in the pipe­line, in­clud­ing Cap­tain Amer­ica and Thor movies.

The scale of The Dark Knight ’ s suc­cess un­der­lines just how huge the re­wards of a suc­cess­ful su­per­hero movie have be­come. Arriving on the back of the suc­cess­ful se­ries re-launch that was 2005’ s Bat­man Be­gins , it was al­ways ex­pected to be a big hit. Heath Ledger’s creepy per­for­mance as the vil­lain­ous Joker vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed it. What no one ex­pected was how enor­mous it would be.

Glob­ally, the film has raked in nearly $ US1 bil­lion ($ 1.4 bil­lion), $ 45.5 mil­lion of that in Aus­tralia, mak­ing it the sec­ond big­gest earner af­ter Ti­tanic . Even bear­ing in mind that Gone with the Wind is the big­gest earner once fig­ures are ad­justed for inflation, the num­bers are sober­ing.

This ( south­ern) win­ter saw a su­per­hero tale open­ing al­most ev­ery week. They in­cluded the first ti­tles from Marvel’s film pro­duc­tion divi­sion: The In­cred­i­ble Hulk ( a sec­ond at­tempt at the char­ac­ter af­ter the 2003 Ang Lee flop, Hulk ) and Iron Man, a size­able hit for Para­mount. Add to them Wanted , Hell­boy II: The Golden Army, Speed Racer ( based on a Ja­panese an­i­ma­tion, it­self based on a comic book) and the Will Smith ve­hi­cle Han­cock , a su­per­hero story, though un­usu­ally one not based on a comic book.

Th­ese ti­tles fol­low the X-Men and Spi­der-Man hit se­ries, two Fan­tas­tic Four movies, Su­per­man Re­turns , flops such as Dare­devil and Cat­woman , su­per­hero come­dies Mys­tery Men, The In­cred- ibles and My Su­per Ex-Girl­friend , and var­i­ous films based on non-su­per­hero comic books and graphic nov­els ( comic books pub­lished in book form), in­clud­ing A His­tory of Vi­o­lence, Sin City , The Road to Perdi­tion and Ghost World .

But the in­flu­ence on Hol­ly­wood spreads fur­ther when you con­sider the way that block­busters such as Trans­form­ers , based on a pop­u­lar toy, em­ploy a comic book aes­thetic, and that action and sci­ence fic­tion movies have started to ape su­per­hero genre con­ven­tions. In the Ma­trix films, Keanu Reeves’s hero, Neo, could fly. In Die Hard 4.0 , Bruce Willis’s John McClane drove into a con­crete pil­lar but, in­stead of crum­pling, his ve­hi­cle flew into the air and knocked a he­li­copter from the sky.

Even James Bond has dis­played su­per­heroic feats, such as his beat­ing the laws of physics in Gold­enEye by div­ing off a cliff in pur­suit of a plum­met­ing aero­plane and catch­ing up with it.

Cin­e­matic su­per­heroes are hardly new, of course; Christo­pher Reeve was in four Su­per­man films made be­tween 1978 and 1987, but then they were an oc­ca­sional event. To­day they form a cen­tral plank of stu­dio out­put. They are to the 2000s what west­erns were to the ’ 50s and fol­low­ing the huge suc­cess of The Dark Knight ( now rou­tinely short­ened to TDK), they’re not about to go away.

By 2011, Warner Bros aims to be re­leas­ing as many as eight such movies a year. With DC Comics ( pub­lisher of char­ac­ters in­clud­ing Bat­man, Su­per­man and Won­der Woman) a part of the Warner Bros En­ter­tain­ment sta­ble since 1969, it’s a nat­u­ral fit.

A key part of the cor­po­ra­tion’s rea­son­ing is not only the box-of­fice suc­cess of its films to date ( its 2006 Su­per­man Re­turns , star­ring new­comer Bran­don Routh, was a box-of­fice dis­ap­point­ment) but the global rev­enues from sales of spinoff prod­ucts such as toys and games.

The phe­nom­e­non has led to the rise to power and in­flu­ence of a new breed of Hol­ly­wood player: the in­vari­ably male fan of comic books and the movies based on them. Ha­bit­u­ally re­ferred to as ‘‘ fan­boys’’, they range in age from the early teens up­ward to the odd sex­a­ge­nar­ian, though the me­dian age is 28 ac­cord­ing to Mal Briggs, co-owner of Can­berra re­tailer Im­pact Comics, which im­ports a half tonne of comic books and graphic nov­els a week from the US.

The fan­boys are in­creas­ingly be­ing courted by the stu­dios, the be­lief be­ing that what­ever movie is pleas­ing them is likely to cross over to wider pop­u­lar­ity. A sign of the im­por­tance of su­per­hero movies to Hol­ly­wood is the huge in­flu­ence of an an­nual con­ven­tion held in San Diego in July known as Comic Con. Ini­tially de­voted to the comic book trade but now also en­com­pass­ing movies, it draws fan­boys in their thou­sands along with an in­creas­ingly large me­dia con­tin­gent.

Chan­nelling the zeit­geist: Su­per­heroes for the dig­i­tal age, from left, Chris­tian Bale as Bat­man; Tobey Maguire as Spi­der-Man; Hugh Jack­man as Wolver­ine; and Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man

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