Are franchise heroes ready to fly again?

Pity Superman and Batman. Two of the mightiest figures in the history of comicbooks, they’ve remained locked in the Warner Bros. vaults as rival spandex-clad do-gooders Spider-Man and the X-Men reigned at the multiplex.

But Superman and Batman may at last have their day.

Warner execs and helmer Chris Nolan are readying “Batman” for a production start in early 2004. And the long-delayed “Superman” is showing new signs of life.

Warners has long sought to revive the franchises, but the studio has had several false starts, as helmers Wolfgang Petersen, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky and Brett Ratner took turns flirting with the projects.

Last week, WB and Nolan tested several actors — among them Jake Gyllenhaal, Christian Bale, Joshua Jackson, Cillian Murphy and Eion Bailey — to determine who will next don the bat cape. A casting decision is expected as early as this week.

Film, developed from a script by David Goyer, should hit theaters in 2005.

Meanwhile, the studio has just received a new draft of the “Superman” script and is going through the budgeting process with helmer McG, following the departure of Ratner, who fell out over casting and other issues.

Though no deals are in place with McG and the pic does not have a greenlight, if Warners can get to a budget that works, the next step could be casting. If all goes well, “Superman” could see a 2005 or spring 2006 release.

Ratner wasn’t the only “Superman” casualty. Longtime production chief Lorenzo di Bonaventura parted ways with the studio in part over a creative battle with WB prexy Alan Horn to push the edgier “Batman vs. Superman” into production first.

Insiders say a final clash of the superheroes is still possible, but the studio is determined first to breath life into “Batman” and “Superman” as separate entities — a function of Horn and WB chairman-CEO Barry Meyer‘s mandate to build AOL TW’s lucrative library gradually.

To that end, the next superhero out of the bag will be Halle Berry as “Catwoman,” clawing her way into theaters next summer.

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