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How will it fly?

Superman appeals to gays. Should that be a selling point? Or could it be kryptonite?

June 02, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

STUDIOS love magazine stories that breathlessly hype their summer popcorn movies, so you would think that Warner Bros. might have been happy with Alonso Duralde's cover story about "Superman Returns," which gushed, "Superheroes -- let's face it -- are totally hot."

There was a twist: Duralde's "Superman Returns" story was not in Entertainment Weekly or Newsweek or Premiere. It ran in the May 23 issue of the Advocate, the prominent national gay magazine, next to the headline: "How Gay Is Superman?"

The Man of Steel has been missing from the movies for 19 years, and now that he's scheduled to fly into the multiplex on June 28, his worries may not be limited to Lex Luthor and kryptonite. Even at a time when moviegoers and awards organizations embraced the overtly gay love story "Brokeback Mountain," there may be a different challenge for a mainstream action movie that happens to be attracting a gay following.

No one suggests that Superman in "Superman Returns" is, in fact, gay. But, as several entertainment and cultural writers have noted, superheroes hold obvious -- and growing -- gay appeal. In addition to being strikingly good-looking, the characters often are portrayed as alienated outsiders, typically leading double lives. In the case of Superman, the beefcake character historically has struggled with romance, all the while running around in a skin-tight suit.

At issue now is whether that gay vibe will broaden the "Superman Returns" audience, or limit it.

Warners has a lot at stake with its long-delayed attempt to breathe life into the "Superman" franchise. The studio's schedule is dominated by pricey sequels, prequels and remakes, but its first such effort this summer, "Poseidon," sank faster than the boat. And "Superman Returns," which will cost about $300 million to release with marketing costs added in, faces formidable competition from the latest installment in the blockbuster franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," which opens nine days after "Superman" lands in theaters.

Beyond the Advocate cover, which features the film's star, Brandon Routh, in costume, industry blogs such as the Defamer website, which has become the online show business bible for many young industry executives, have been as obsessed with "Superman's" gay appeal as Britney Spears' parenting skills and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's new baby girl.

Defamer has posted a number of stories on how gay the "Superman Returns" posters and Topps trading cards make the character look, particularly in one trading card showing Superman literally coming out of a closet. "If Warner Bros. marketing partners like Topps aren't even going to bother pretending, why should we?" Defamer asked. "Be proud, our fabulously caped little Queer-El."

Warner Bros. declined to comment. But the studio is reaching out to some gay moviegoers. Warners has bought "Superman Returns" advertising time on Logo, a year-old digital cable channel in 20 million homes that calls itself "the channel for Gay America."

An informal poll of six veteran Hollywood marketing executives at rival studios revealed sharply divided opinions over how -- or even if -- "Superman's" gay attention would affect the film. Two of the executives said the focus could actually expand the film's audience, much as gay moviegoers have responded to the "X-Men" superhero series, which has been praised for its metaphorical plots about acceptance. The first two "X-Men" movies were directed by Bryan Singer, the openly gay filmmaker who also made "Superman Returns." Singer did not respond to an interview request.

But four of the movie marketing executives, all of whom declined to speak on the record, said gay "Superman Returns" interest presented two potential box-office problems. First, teenage moviegoers, especially those in conservative states, might be put off by a movie carrying a gay vibe; among some teens, these executives agreed, saying something "is gay" is still the ultimate put-down. Second, the attention threatens to undermine the film's status as a hard-edged action movie, making it feel softer, more romantic, and thus less interesting to young ticket buyers who crave pyrotechnics.

Though "Brokeback Mountain's" gay love story proved to be a Hollywood breakthrough, unequivocally selling a ton of tickets and winning three Oscars, it was essentially an adult drama, which courts a very different audience than the high-octane action crowd that "Superman" needs to attract.

Bob Witeck, whose Washington marketing and public relations firm specializes in campaigns aimed at gay, lesbian and bisexual consumers, said an issue for any firm is to entice one constituency without alienating another.

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