Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway, rides a custom motorcycle in this summer’s… (Ron Phillips, Warner Bros. )
The superhero extravaganza "The Avengers"marks the first of many movies that will feature motorcycles racing onto the big screen this summer. Not only will Captain America helm a Harley-Davidsonin the big-budget Marvel movie, but one of the leads of "Men in Black" will time-travel to 1969 on board an "Easy Rider"-esque chopper. A circus bear will even throw a furry leg over a Ducati in the animated feature "Madagascar 3."
Motorcycles have long played a part in the movies, but as summer films become more explosive and adventure oriented, two wheels are playing a larger role.
Whether it's the bad guy flying a sport bike 15 feet in the air to blow up a building in the upcoming "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" or a hero evading capture in a highway chase in last month's"Lockout,"motorcycles make good business for companies that build bikes and agencies that place them in movies.
"There are a lot more action movies these days and a lot more franchise movies, a la 'The Avengers' or'Iron Man,' so you see more high-end performance bikes," said Mark Owens, president of the product placement agency Norm Marshall & Associates.
"The fact that a bike can do more and be sleeker and have more horsepower and have a better turning radius as you're trying to get through traffic on a major freeway chase scene — that's pivotal to keeping the audience involved in the movie," he said.
Executive producer Erik Howsam cast a motorcycle rather than a car in the upcoming "G.I. Joe" for exactly that reason.
"The bike is both a character and it plays a plot point," Howsam said of the highly modified Ducati that splits in half and explodes like a missile in the film starring Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson.
"There's a cool factor to it," he said. "When you're putting together an action film, you look at how you can stand out and be unique. If you have a character on a motorcycle, it turns heads."
In "Madagascar 3," a Ducati figures into a reimagination of the classic circus bear on a trike.
"We wanted to upgrade to a motorcycle," director Tom McGrath said of a scene that has one of the movie's animal cast members riding the Ducati in a manner more appropriate to the X Games.
"It's a bit pop culture-y because so many people are riding motorcycles these days," said Doug Harlocker, prop master for the upcoming "Men in Black 3," which features a custom-built chopper, novelty monocycles and a couple of Harley-Davidsons — along with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in their black suits and sunglasses.
"It's such an iconic thing. Motorcycles afford a sense of freedom, and it's something the audience can identify with," Harlocker said.
Motorcycle manufacturers are hoping audiences will do more than just identify.
New motorcycle sales have suffered steep declines in recent years. In 2007, about 948,000 new on- and off-road motorcycles were sold, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. The total dropped to 441,000 last year.
Placing the right motorcycle in the right film increases a brand's visibility and potential sales.
"We need to grow the sport ofHarley-Davidsonmotorcycles, and entertainment is such a wonderful way to put motorcycling on the map," said Dino Bernacchi, director of advertising and promotions for Milwaukee-basedHarley-Davidson, the country's largest motorcycle manufacturer.
Bernacchi said Harley's movie placements "absolutely bring in new customers." He said interest in its bikes is 80% higher among non-riders when the bike is placed in a movie versus other media.
Last year, Harley partnered with Marvel for "Captain America," centered on the eponymous character who rode a Harley in the original comics of the 1940s and rode an actual Harley in the 2011 film.
At the world premiere of "The Avengers" last month, a shiny new 2012 Softail Slim was parked on the red carpet. Participants who design comic incarnations of Harley motorcycles as part of the company's Assemble Your Freedom contest will appear in an upcoming edition of Marvel's "Captain America" comic book.
One advertising expert noted that tying a motorcycle to a movie requires balance.
"If it looks too blatant, you pick it out and it becomes annoying," said Jason Chinnock, sales and marketing director for Ducati North America, the high-performance Italian brand that is a favorite among movie producers. But used correctly, it has a desired effect: Chinnock noted that dealers quickly sold out of the Sport 1000 model after the bike appeared in the 2010 hit "Tron: Legacy."
Ducati will be particularly visible in upcoming movies. Its Hypermotard model will be in Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow's next film, tentatively titled "Zero Dark Thirty," and its Monster 1100 will appear in "Fast and Furious 6" next year.