Thursday, December 30, 2010

Culture Shock 12.30.10: Summer will determine superhero supremacy

Looking ahead to summer 2011, it seems like the new year will bring the ultimate battle for superhero supremacy.

Three movies from two rival studios will slug it out to see which one can jump-start a franchise that will keep moviegoers flocking to theaters for summers to come.

In one corner are "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger," both produced by Marvel Studios, which is a newly inducted subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. empire. And while Paramount Pictures is releasing the films under Marvel's pre-buyout distribution deal, both movies still mean a lot to Disney. The House of Mouse is depending on them to be strong lead-ins for 2012's all-star Marvel movie, "The Avengers," which will feature the bulk of Marvel's flagship superheroes — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk — together for the first time on the big screen.

Paramount was originally signed to distribute "The Avengers," too. But in October, Disney agreed to pay Paramount $115 million to get back the distribution rights to "The Avengers" and "Iron Man 3." Disney has a lot riding on "Thor" and "Captain America" doing well, and it's a real gamble because neither film has "Iron Man's" secret weapon: Robert Downey Jr.

"Thor" is scheduled for release May 6, while "Captain America" unspools July 22. Sandwiched in the middle is "Green Lantern," based on one of DC Comics' most venerable superheroes and produced by DC's parent company, Warner Bros. "Green Lantern" is set for release June 17.

"Green Lantern" may be a bigger test for Warner Bros. than "Thor" and "Captain America" are for Disney. With the exception of the Batman franchise — currently going strong despite Joel Schumacher's attempts to kill it in the late '90s — Warner has had rotten luck of lateturning DC's stable of characters into successful film franchises.

"Superman Returns" (2006) was a misguided bore that portrayed the Man of Steel as one-half Christ figure and one-half deadbeat dad, which isn't a winning combination. And the studio's attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen have all been dead ends. One false start was to be helmed by Joss Whedon, who is now in the Marvel/Disney camp writing and directing "The Avengers."

With a likable and, more importantly, bankable leading man in Ryan Reynolds, "Green Lantern" is the best chance for Warner to finally find the hidden potential in all of those superheroes it owns. The Flash is already up next with a tentative 2013 release date.

The bad news for Warner Bros., however, is the fanboy reaction to the first "Green Lantern" footage is mixed. Green Lantern's CGI costume doesn't look quite right, and Reynolds seems miscast as the square-jawed superhero/test pilot Hal Jordan.

The good news for Warner is fanboys don't matter. If they did, "Scott Pilgrim" would have been a huge hit this year rather than a box-office dud. You can make a movie that appeals both to staunch comic-book fans and general audiences, as "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight" and Sam Raimi's first two "Spider-Man" movies prove. But you don't have to cave to fanboy demands to get a hit (for example, the first "X-Men" film).

The better news is, miscast or not, Reynolds at least seems to have the right idea about how to play Green Lantern. He's reportedly described the role as a cross between Han Solo and Chuck Yeager. And as long as his Jordan ends up a bit more Yeager than Solo, that's not a bad combo.

With the summer movie season having become the playground of superheroes and sequels, how these movies fare could determine what movies Hollywood's major studios make for years to come. They will certainly determine whether DC/Warner remains just an also-ran to Marvel/Disney.

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