Power Struggle

Though comic-book characters like The Hulk have been heroes on the big screen, Wonder Woman and others remain invisible to moviegoers

June 11, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. X-Men. And now Iron Man.

Big-time movie franchises all, major-league moneymakers that have their fans lining up around the block for more.

But what about Wonder Woman? The Flash? Thor? Captain America? What's keeping them off the big screen?

"Mainly, it's because we can only do so many at one time," offers 20th-century mythmaker supreme Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man and a bunch of other superhero franchises-in-waiting.

Maybe. But the truth is more complicated than that, having to do with a host of factors ranging from popularity to casting, from special effects to scriptwriting, from fulfilling fans' expectations to striking while the superhero iron is hot.

At the moment, superhero movies are being churned out like widgets on an assembly line. And almost every one - even those without some form of "Man" in the title, such as Fantastic Four - is minting money. The most recent entry, Iron Man, has grossed $276.2 million in the U.S. alone. The trend looks to continue this weekend, with the premiere of Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (the second time around for the big green-skinned brute), and later this summer, with Batman hitting the screen for the sixth time since 1989, in The Dark Knight.

In fact, superhero movies have proven reliable box-office draws for three decades, ever since Christopher Reeve donned the red-and-blue tights for 1978's Superman. There have been box-office underachievers such as Daredevil, Catwoman, Spawn and the first Hulk, but they've been the exceptions, not the rule.

Still, not all superheroes have been able to bask in their colleagues' reflected glory. Take Wonder Woman, for example. The amazing Amazon, a goddess originally sent to Earth to try to keep men from killing one another, has been a fixture of the comics pages since 1942. From 1975 to 1979, Lynda Carter made her a hit on the small screen and a role model for young girls.

But a big-screen version of Wonder Woman has been aborning in Hollywood for more than a decade. Just about every actress under 50 has been considered for the role, from Sandra Bullock and Kate Beckinsale to Kate Hudson and Jessica Biel. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon once signed on to write and direct but soon abandoned the project. And still, Diana Prince and her Amazonian alter ego wait.

Maybe Carter's the problem. Matching the right actor to the right superhero is always tricky, and once the right combination has been discovered, fans tend to stay loyal. After Michael Keaton left Batman, for instance, neither Val Kilmer nor George Clooney, accomplished actors both, had any success in the role. More than one Internet fan site has suggested that Carter made such an indelible Wonder Woman, everyone else rates a poor second. The 56-year-old actress scoffs at that notion.

"I don't think that's true," she says. "There's no reason why she shouldn't be played by a lot of people. Although maybe, the effort not to be compared to the Wonder Woman that I played takes the focus off of where it needs to be."

That focus, Carter insists, should be on staying true to the character, not to her embodiment of it.

"She was a little bit of a fish out of water, and that was wonderful," Carter says. "She didn't think she was all that, but the people all around her thought she was all that. There's a vulnerability around her that was really wonderful."

While no other superhero has followed as tortuous a path to the big screen, plenty of others have been patiently waiting their turn. Each has faced his or her own peculiar challenges.

There's Thor, for instance, the Norse god of thunder, he of the bulging muscles, flowing blond locks and all-powerful hammer. He's been around since 1962 but has never made it to either the big or small screen, except as a cartoon. Like just about every Marvel Comics superhero, he's got a film in development, slated for a release in 2010 or thereabouts. But why the long wait?

Maybe the hammer's been the problem, figuring out some way to have an actor constantly swinging an overgrown carpenter's tool over his head without looking silly.

Or maybe the problem has been the character's physical appearance. When the perfect casting choice is Fabio, that can't be a good sign.

Both Green Lantern, an intergalactic emissary who gets his power from a magic ring, and The Flash, the fastest man alive, have so far resisted efforts to film movies around them. (The Flash was the subject of a 1990 telemovie starring John Wesley Shipp and Rockville's own Paula Marshall, and a short-lived series, but the less said about them, the better).

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