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Ka-pow, Spidey!

Marvel Studios taps second-string superheroes to grab box office.

July 22, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

IF your planet is imperiled by scaly aliens or some flame-headed demigod, there's no one better to have on your side than Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the Ant-Man, who have saved Earth on a monthly basis for four decades in the pages of Marvel Comics. But what if you needed to launch a Hollywood franchise -- are those the superheroes you would really turn to?

That's the multimillion-dollar question that Marvel Entertainment has decided to try to answer. Tired of watching Marvel characters become powerful economic forces for others -- the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" movies alone have delivered worldwide grosses in the range of $2.7 billion for 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures -- the company will unveil Marvel Studios today at the International Comic-Con in San Diego, which has become a sort of Cannes for capes and the nexus point between Hollywood and genre-film fanboys.

The new enterprise gets Marvel in the filmmaking business. Though Marvel's current role as the Hollywood concept pipeline has given it a windfall, that pales in comparison to the amount of money the studios have made off of these films. The company will stage a Comic-Con panel today that includes three directors tapped to launch the venture: Jon Favreau ("Elf," "Zathura") will adapt Iron Man, Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") will take on Ant-Man and Louis Leterrier ("Transporter II," "The Unleashed") will handle a new Hulk film.

No one thinks it will be easy. In other words, an ant is no spider.

"Ant-Man has always been treated as almost the runt of the litter in the comics," Wright said of the red-suited hero who can shrink and control ants with his telepathic helmet. "There was even that old 'Saturday Night Live' skit where Garrett Morris played him.... This is not one of those heroes that everyone in the world knows about and will recognize."

That's exciting to Wright because it gives him some creative latitude and spares him the intense fan scrutiny that accompanies, say, a Batman or Superman film. But for Marvel it highlights the fact that executives there are betting on their bench.

The stakes are high: Last year, Marvel Entertainment Inc. secured a $525-million loan deal with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. that is earmarked for investment in 10 films, some with budgets expected to climb toward $200 million. The plan is to release two PG-13 films per year, beginning in 2008 with "Iron Man." Paramount Pictures will be on board as Marvel's exclusive marketing and distribution partner for the films, which are expected to include Nick Fury, Cloak & Dagger and Power Pack -- titles that will make most moviegoers scratch their heads.

Marvel's most obviously bankable characters -- Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Wolverine -- are already locked into deals for movies with other studios, as is Ghost Rider, a Nicolas Cage vehicle that hits theaters in February. A fair share of the other most-recognizable names -- among them Daredevil, the Punisher and Elektra -- have already seen their screen moments come and go.

On the floor of Comic-Con, comics, video games and toys are now automatically sized up for viability as a $150-million summer film -- that's the popcorn era we live in these days. Plenty of genre-industry competitors suggest that Marvel may be opening a store with shelves that have already been picked clean of high-end merchandise.

"There is a clear benefit to their approach when it comes to smaller or niche characters that have a set audience and can reach the screen in targeted films," said Holly Rawlinson, U.S. vice president of licensing for Pokemon, the Japanese card game and animation powerhouse. "But, really, their most special stuff has already been done if you're talking about those huge expensive films, the franchise films ... the really big names, they've pretty much gone through that list."

Marvel's leadership has a one-word response for that sort of thinking: "Blade." The vampire slayer who pulled in an estimated $417 million in worldwide box-office grosses (and just spawned a TV series) began as a supporting character in the 1970s Marvel comic titled "Tomb of Dracula," one of the publisher's second-string titles despite its cult-favorite storylines and moody Gene Colan artwork. In other words, this was not exactly a character you would see on a kid's lunchbox.

Kevin Feige, president of production for the Beverly Hills-based Marvel Studios, said that Marvel's deep archive is teeming with those sorts of high-concept characters. By gaining creative control and some distance from major studio bureaucracies, Feige believes the comic book company can match unexpected projects with young filmmakers who grew up loving the Marvel universe and who may be more interested in exploring characters such as, say, Deathlok, Moon Knight or Hawkeye anyway.

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