Win, lose, or draw

Or: How do you bring a comic book to life without killing a superhero?

Bryan Singer did not read comic books as a young boy, because he couldn't read them. As a kid, he was slightly dyslexic and, therefore, unable to follow the dialogue as it bubbled across panels and pages; quite simply, Singer says now, comic books confused him, so the Jersey boy turned on the television and went to the movies. Never did the director of The Usual Suspects expect to find himself a 33-year-old man making a film based on a comic book.

Yet, somehow, a childhood spent ignoring comics led to an adulthood spent studying them as though they were religious texts. The director emits a short, sharp laugh when discussing the research necessary in the making of X-Men, his new movie based on the 37-year-old Marvel Comics series about a band of mutants struggling to retain their humanity in a world that regards their kind as loaded weapons.

"With X-Men all you have to do is read some of the books, character biographies and encyclopedias, the amazing art as it has transformed over the decades, watch all 70 episodes of the cartoon series, and have lunch with Stan Lee, who co-created the comic book in 1963, and Chris Claremont, whose writing has defined the series for years," Singer says. "Then, you're off." He chuckles, as though still baffled by how a USC film-school graduate spent a good chunk of his early 30s morphing from filmmaker to fanboy.

A scene from the never-aired--thank God--Justice League of America pilot made for CBS-TV in 1997
A scene from the never-aired--thank God--Justice League of America pilot made for CBS-TV in 1997

What's even more startling is that it seems the future of comic-based films now sits squarely on the thin shoulders of this man who, not long ago, could not have cared less about the genre. Whenever producers now discuss forthcoming movies based on comic books, be they Fantastic Four or something far more obscure, they all add one caveat: We'll get this movie made if X-Men is a hit. The weight is enough to suffocate.

"It's scary pressure," Singer says. "I hear those kinds of things: 'The fate of Marvel rests on Bryan Singer.' I'm like, 'Excuse me?' Marvel was around before I existed, so do not put that pressure on me, thank you."

But what did he expect? X-Men ranks among the best-selling comics of all time, and its fan base is as rabid and fetishistic as any cult. If he betrays that audience in trying to go after the summerplex crowd, to whom the words "Magneto" and "Wolverine" are meaningless, then the director will become this year's Joel Schumacher--the man who took over the Batman film series in 1995 with Batman Forever and proved it was indeed possible to kill Bruce Wayne's alter ego, if not an entire industry of movies based on comic books. But if the movie goes for the cult and ignores the merely curious, it won't make enough to cover its $75 million price tag.

After all, Schumacher's 1997 Batman & Robin opened huge--more than $40 million its opening week--but it eventually failed to recoup its $110 million budget in the U.S. People wanted to see a live-action Batman movie, just not Schumacher's. If the comic's fans think X-Men has betrayed its source material, Singer's name will become an epithet on the Internet. And if it bombs at the box office, his name will become a curse word in Hollywood--especially since X-Men has been the subject of so much speculation and hype since 1998.

"It's a very significant dilemma, because with a following this vast, you definitely don't want to ignore it," Singer says of trying to appeal at once to the mad and the mainstream. "It's that following that has propelled this universe into the lexicon, so you want to respect it. But as a filmmaker and as someone who did not grow up reading the comic as a fan or a fan of comics in general, I also felt a responsibility to broadening and expanding this wonderful universe I had become a fan of to people who weren't aware of it. So it's an interesting responsibility."

Yes, one that raises a very simple question: Can anyone really win when making a movie based on a comic book?

The Web site Coming Attractions (http://corona.bc.ca/films/mainFramed.html) catalogs more than 100 "forthcoming" films based on comic-book titles--and if you believe that list, then you probably thought Helen Slater's Supergirl was a really good idea and have a poster of Nicholas Hammond as Spider-Man hanging in your living room. Most of the titles listed--among them Iron Man, Green Lantern, Sgt. Rock, The New Gods, Gen13, Ant-Man, and on and on--are stuck in "development hell," meaning they'll probably never get made.

A significant number are in the rumor-mill stage: Say, d'ja hear Warner Bros. wants Sandra Bullock to play Wonder Woman? Only a handful, including Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, are in the most initial stages of preproduction: They have directors and writers, but no cast yet.

Such confidence stems, in part, from an announcement made in May: Marvel Studios has partnered with Artisan Entertainment (which distributed The Blair Witch Project) to create, at the very least, a handful of films based on the comic company's characters--among them such lesser-knowns as Black Panther (which Wesley Snipes has long been interested in) and Iron Fist. But Marvel has already licensed its biggest names to other studios: Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is being made for Columbia, Big Momma's House director Raja Gosnell is slated to make Fantastic Four for Fox, and the Hulk belongs to Universal Studios. Just this week, Coming Attractions even posted a review of a script for a Hulk movie: "The script is really, really good and if they stick close to it, it'll make a great movie."

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