Not every superhero's origin story occurs on the page

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s … a superhero we’ve never seen before.

With the success of the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” films, it’s no wonder Hollywood suits are greenlighting original men-in-tights stories — projects such as Fox’s “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and NBC’s upcoming “Heroes” skein — that were conceived not in the pages of pulp comics but directly for the screen.

After all, superhero movies are big business. Not only do they have the capacity to send small children into an action-figure-buying frenzy, but familiar Marvel- or DC-based characters also pack the added benefit of drawing parents who recognize the characters.

But when it comes to unfamiliar faces, is the superhero element enough to lure auds, or does success depend on familiarity with the characters in question?

“Having a big marketing budget or a recognizable superhero can help, but it always boils down to story,” says Wizard Entertainment editorial director Mel Caylo. “If you ground your superhero in reality, make them likable and have a good story, audiences will most likely find you.”

Auds virtually ignored noncomicbook-based “The Specials,” which made a mere $13,276 in theaters, but their enthusiasm for “The Incredibles” made that pic Pixar’s second highest earner, grossing more than $261 million domestically. Disney’s well-reviewed “Sky High” made a respectable $64 million, and “Unbreakable,” M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to “The Sixth Sense,” took in a solid $95 million.

Clearly, auds don’t object to original heroes, although performance could also be a function of budget and the level of talent attached. Pics like “Superman Returns” and “X-Men 3″ not only feature familiar characters, but in sheer spectacle, they rank as the summer’s big event movies.

Tentpole treatment helps any superhero movie’s chances, original or otherwise, says David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s director of marketing and public relations, and the right push could pay off for “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and “Zoom” this summer. “You have large studio publicity machines getting awareness out there and really popular actors in them,” says Glanzer. “They won’t do ‘Superman’ business, but I think they’ll make a respectable amount of money.”

“Comics are a universal language,” agrees Jeph Loeb, a writer on NBC’s “Heroes,” a show in which unrelated people all over the world suddenly discover they have superpowers (think “X-Men” meets “Lost”). “We all know what a superhero is now, and we want to connect with audiences by giving everyday people the challenge of living with a superhero’s abilities,” he says.

One of the genre’s living legends believes there’s a distinctly human attraction to these heroic icons that doesn’t begrudge which logo appears on the cape. “There’s such a fondness for anything bigger and better and bolder than life,” says comic creator Stan Lee. “There’s no limit to how superhero stories can be presented, but you always need great stories and characters.”

Lee will host “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” on the Sci Fi Channel this summer, a reality show in which contestants compete for the chance to be immortalized in one of his comicbooks.

“Comics are often like fairy tales for older people now,” Lee says. “And we keep coming back because we all have these little daydreams.”

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