Upping the superhero ante

In their rush to cash in on comics, studios may create an overload

"Iron Man," which premieres Friday, not only kicks off Hollywood's extended summer movie season, it supercharges what is shaping up as the biggest season ever for comic book-to-film transfers.

"It's not a fad," Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige said of the onslaught of movies built around comic book avengers. "It's the new archetype for the summer blockbuster. Everybody loves special effects, everybody loves epic entertainment, and that's what comics have been delivering for decades and decades."

"Iron Man" will be followed by "The Incredible Hulk" and "Wanted" on June 13 and 27, respectively, both from Universal. "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" unleashes July 11, again from Universal, while "The Dark Knight," Warner Bros.' Batman sequel, alights July 18. Lionsgate releases "Punisher: War Zone" Sept. 12. On July 2, Sony opens its Will Smith-starrer "Hancock," which is not actually based on an actual comic but does promise to turn superhero conventions on their head with its tale of a depressed, alcoholic, bumbling hero.

It speaks to the vitality of the genre that Hollywood can schedule all these movies in the same time period without fear that they will cannibalize each another. "Iron Man" is a Marvel action movie featuring a man in a super-powered armor, while "Wanted" is an R-rated action movie about a society of super-assassins. "Hulk" is a Marvel monster movie set amid a realistic backdrop, while "Hellboy" aims to take audiences to underground worlds fertilized by Guillermo del Toro's imagination. "Dark Knight" is expected to offer another dark, psychological exploration from director Christopher Nolan.

"If they were all about a guy who runs into an alley and changed into a costume or into a phone booth to put on a mask, they would have come and gone in a year or two," Feige said. Maintaining a heroic diversity is important to Marvel as it gets ready to greenlight its next films from a slate that ranges from "Ant-Man" (directed by Edgar Wright) to "Thor" (a Norse God adventure from Matthew Vaughn) to the patriotic, flag-waving "Captain America."

"Because they can be so varied in genre, in rating, in execution, there is a lot of room for them (in the marketplace)," said Donna Langley, president of production at Universal Studios. "But you should be mindful about the competitive landscape. You obviously don't want to release 'Superman' and 'Spider-Man' the same day."

These movies are not slam dunks, by any means. The riskiest among the crop is the Marvel-backed "Hulk," which has seen a behind-the-scenes drama play out between star Ed Norton and Marvel over competing visions. There is also the hurdle of getting audiences to see a movie that is not a sequel but a relaunch of a film that came out only five years ago.

On the other hand, not all of these flicks are $100 million-plus gambles. Universal has been keen on keeping the budgets on "Hellboy 2" and "Wanted" in the $80 million range.

Says Langley: "It's like animated movies — we went from two or three a year to 25 a year. Only so many of them are going to overperfrom, and the others are going to do OK."

As it ups the superhero ante, Hollywood is still learning is to be mindful of the characters' fan bases and creators. The comic book fans scrutinize everything from director and actors to costumes to how closely the films follow the source material. Creators, meanwhile, can spout off against any movie that they feel betrays their vision. Alan Moore, for example, never publicly blessed the movies "V for Vendetta" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which were based on his comics.

In the summer, "Wanted" strays from its source material. The original miniseries was, in part, a nihilistic tale of evil super-assassins killing one another as well as the good guys. But because that comic's fan base isn't as big as that of Hellboy or Spider-Man, the studio felt comfortable veering from the comic to make it more appealing to a broader-based audience. But it also made sure creator Mark Millar was involved, going to him for ideas and using his dialogue for voice-over bits.

"If you deviate from the comic book, do it in concert with the creator so he doesn't wage an Internet campaign," Langley said.

While another ironic take on costumed heroes, 1999's "Mystery Men," fizzled at the boxoffice, times, audiences and movies have changed, making "Hancock" as close to a sure-bet as you can find at the boxoffice.

"As an audiencegoer, I cannot wait to see that movie," Langley said. "But it's because I've been conditioned by the past five to 10 years of comic book action movies."

"Every summer I get asked how long is this going to last," Feige said. "The truth is, that's like saying how long are people going to make movies based on novels. Well, for as long as there are cool stories to be told."