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Superheroes soar in awards season

Comicbooks no longer kryptonite to kudos

Superheroes have grown accustomed to striking gold at the box office. Yet now, in a shift that has the entire genre being taken more seriously, they’re being discussed in the award season races as well.

“The Dark Knight’s” Heath Ledger is near the top of many lists when cinephiles are debating best supporting performances, while Christian Bale and Gary Oldman have also been chatted up for their turns in the film. And what would “Iron Man” have been without Robert Downey Jr.’s take on the man of metal?

“It’s been great reading some of these early award-season buzz pieces, to feel like we’re crossing some sort of a threshold,” says Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “Here we are, eight years after the first ‘X-Men’ film … and people are realizing that there’s quality work going into (superhero movies) that can’t be ignored during this season.”

It’s not new for A-list actors to appear in superhero pics — Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman helped put 1978’s “Superman” and the genre on the cinematic map.

But the current wave of superhero films has begun to attract actors willing to put on the tights for increasingly complex scripts that go beyond simplistic battles between good and evil.

Mike Richardson, who founded Dark Horse Comics and produced such films as “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” says more well-known actors are showing interest in playing superheroes.

“When you have a movie like ‘The Dark Knight’ that’s so successful on so many levels, I think that opens things up for not only subject matter, but it opens the minds of people who play in those movies to the possibilities of (awards for) themselves,” he says.

While such well-known characters as those in “Spider-Man,” “Superman,” “X-Men,” “Hulk” and “Fantastic Four” having already made it to the bigscreen, there’s no shortage of fan-favorite superheroes still waiting for their shot at a thorough theatrical treatment.

Michael Doran, co-founder and senior editor of the comicbook news site Newsarama, sees the most movie potential for DC Comics’ the Flash.

“Superspeed just is so elemental,” he says. “The character, especially the Wally West version — the fast-talking, quick-witted type — his personality almost matches his superpowers.”

Also in the mix: DC and parent company Warner Bros. are further along on “Green Lantern,” which could be ready to shoot next year; “Dark Knight” co-writer David Goyer is looking to produce his “Green Arrow” script; and “Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam!” is set up with helmer Peter Berg attached.

Another perennial candidate, Wonder Woman, remains stuck in development purgatory, while the most Aquaman was able to do was as a fictional film in the TV series “Entourage.”

Marvel’s immediate plans are more concrete, with “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America” leading into a massive “Avengers” film in 2011. Beyond that, Feige says the company is developing a comic called “Runaways,” about kid heroes who learn their parents are supervillains. It also has “Doctor Strange” on the horizon.

Doran also sees potential in “Black Panther,” about a high-tech African king, and “Sub-Mariner,” a long-in-development pic about Marvel’s hotheaded underwater monarch.

Casting such roles is tricky. Fans intensely debate among themselves which actors are right for particular characters and have no problem speaking up when they disagree with filmmakers’ choices. Fans’ discussions often reveal biases toward actors who already have appeared in similar movies.

“In both acting and directing, there are certain directors and certain actors the fanbase are more accepting of,” says Richardson.

Among the current fan favorites are “Definitely, Maybe” star Ryan Reynolds as the Flash, Leonardo DiCaprio as Captain America, Ryan Gosling as Green Lantern and Gerard Butler or Clive Owen as Sub-Mariner.

Most of these rumors are debunked as quickly as they ignite, but they still have potency. A recent rumor that Will Smith was set to play Captain America spread so quickly that Marvel had to actively deny it, while James Bond star Daniel Craig recently confirmed to the press that he passed on “Thor.”

Feige says neither part has been cast yet, but he explains that Marvel’s approach to casting — exemplified by the choice of Downey as Tony Stark — is to find actors who can bring more to the table than just a physical resemblance to the comicbook character.

“We do not think about the box office appeal of any name actor, necessarily,” he says. “We bet on the box office appeal of the character.”

While future films of comicbook characters might not bring the same critical success Downey or Ledger found this year, thesps not being routinely dismissed during awards season because they wore tights or a put on a mask is a big step forward for the genre.

“In the past, you always heard it was very difficult for actors in a comedy to win an Oscar,” Feige says. “The idea of a superhero film creating roles that could be considered for best actor or best supporting actor was much more remote than that.”

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