A Superhero’s Welcome: This Summer’s Comic Book Movies

A scene from the movie “Speed Racer” starring Emile Hirsch, a Palisades native.

Comic book superhero movies will continue to dominate the box office this summer’heck, this year! Nowhere have comic books been bigger than in Hollywood, where the mega-success of the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman franchises has inspired studios to green-light myriad film versions of superhero titles. As ‘Iron Man’ continues to prove its mettle (and metal) in the multiplexes, we kick off our annual Summer Fun supplement one week early. Here are the latest comic books to come alive on movie screens. The Marvel Comics man of armor has already proven invincible, launching the summer season with a jet propulsion jump on next weekend’s highly anticipated sequel in the aging ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ adventure franchise, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Earlier this month, ‘Iron Man’ enjoyed the second-biggest non-sequel debut in cinematic history ($100.7 million), lagging behind only another Marvel adaptation, ‘Spider-Man,’ which opened with nearly $115 million in 2002. Debuting in ‘Tales of Suspense’ in 1963 during the Vietnam War, the Iron Man comic book followed as Tony Stark, a Howard Hughes-esque billionaire industrialist with a heart injury, creates a superpowered suit not only to thwart his adversaries but to keep himself alive. Complicating things: Stark turns alcoholic. The movie, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Stark and Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes, insinuates that Rhodes’ alter ego, War Machine (a popular, Iron Man-on-steroids version introduced in 1979) will appear in the sequel. This past weekend, the Wachowski Brothers (the ‘Matrix’ trilogy) offer their souped-up, all-ages take on “Speed Racer’ (based on the popular ’70s anime series) starring Paul Revere Middle School grad Emile Hirsch. Apparently, not every hero is bulletproof. Despite an estimated budget of $100 million, ‘Speed Racer’ failed to out-race ‘Iron Man’ with its meager $18.5 million opening. Some pundits blame ‘Speed”s 2 hours and 15 minutes”excessive for a teen flick. Part of the fault might also rest with the simple fact that the original cartoon series enjoyed only a cult following at best. Nevertheless, some critics have commended the film’s ambitious attempt to stand out visually with its stylized, candy-colored universe. ***** In 2003, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ director Ang Lee failed to realize his ‘green destiny’ when he made a Hulk movie that angered critics and audiences alike. To paraphrase Bill Bixby on the ’70s ‘Incredible Hulk’ TV show, audiences said of his Hulk movie, ‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ang Lee.’ Cut to five years later, and “The Incredible Hulk,’ with an all-new take on the classic Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation, is set to smash screens on June 13 with a new star (Edward Norton), new director (Louis Letterier), and a new hope among fans that the new talent will get the comic-book aesthetic right. With ‘Iron Man,’ Marvel began financing its own movies, using studios as distributors. Now that ‘Iron Man’ has proved that Marvel is capable of making blockbusters on their own, the new ‘Hulk’ movie will decide whether or not Marvel’s second-most-popular character (after a certain wall-crawling web-slinger) will appear again on the big screen in the future. Other releases: ‘ Perennial Hollywood ‘it’ girl Angelina Jolie (“Tomb Raider”) returns to comic book-flavored territory on June 28 with an adaptation of Top Cow’s “Wanted,’ an inverted tale about super-villains. ‘ Ron Perlman returns in “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army” (July 11), based on cartoonist Mike Mignola’s retro tales of a Nazi-fighting demon. Once again, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ director Guillermo del Toro will direct Dark Horse Comics’ flagship character. ‘ “The Dark Knight” (July 18) would have been big on its own merits, but this ‘Batman Begins’ follow-up will benefit from a morbid curiosity boost following the unfortunate demise of Heath Ledger, who completed his work as psychotic villain The Joker before his January 22 death. Regardless, Christopher Nolan’s 2005 ‘Begins’ successfully brought a darker and more faithful-to-the-comics version of the vigilante hero to the silver screen, and you don’t need a bat’s radar to know that Batman readers and non-readers alike are brimming with anticipation for Nolan’s latest installment. (Next week: Our ‘summer’-ization of all things comic books continues in our Summer Fun supplement, with a look at a plethora of comic book-related DVDs, happenings, graphic novels and manga worth checking out this summer.)