Pop Culture

Beyond Batman and Catwoman

In recent years, the comic-book movie has really taken off. In part that's due to ever-better special effects that make it easier to make a fantastical world look real. But there's also more willingness to treat these stories with the seriousness they deserve — that is, it's still escapist pop entertainment about guys who shoot lasers out of their eyes, but it's no longer doomed to the dungeon of dreadful camp.

Casting is always crucial in any film adaptation, but especially so with comics. You need actors who can bring the character to life without moving too far from the established face and personality readers already know. Tobey Maguire, for instance, is just about the best Spider-Man one could hope for. Ron Perlman is an equally inspired choice for the title character in “Hellboy,” which came out at the beginning of April. This summer, we'll see a new round of comic-based movies, led by “Spider-Man 2” on June 30 (this time taking on villain Doctor Octopus), Halle Berry's “Catwoman” on July 23 and “Alien vs. Predator” on August 13. But there's plenty of other comics — superhero, indie or otherwise — that deserve a shot at the big screen. Here's a few of our suggestions.

SandmanWhat is it? Writer Neil Gaiman's mythic tale of the King of Dreams, one of seven beings known as the Endless who personify universal constants such as Death, Destruction and Desire.How to film it: Put Johnny Depp in goth makeup and hair similar to his “Edward Scissorhands” role, and he'd be perfect. His sister Death's sardonic sense of humor might be a good match for Buffy's” Alyson Hannigan.

The Dark Knight ReturnsWhat is it? Frank Miller's exploration of Batman's dark side rescued the character from the excesses of the campy 1960s Adam West TV series, and was one of the most influential comics of its decade. How to film it: Miller's story takes place in a dystopian future decades after Bats has retired, and tells how he's driven to put on his mask again to fight both new and old evils. He'd have to be played by an older actor whose persona exemplifies cold, distant aloofness and bursts of intense rage, someone who could still believably beat up a room full of thugs even at age 65 or 70. So if Clint Eastwood isn't available, call Charlton Heston's agent.

The Fantastic FourWhat is it? Given strange powers by a burst of cosmic radiation, four astronauts return to New York City and take on foes including the megalomaniacal Dr. Doom. It was the first big success for Stan Lee's Marvel Comics, and the only one of its major titles (the others are “Spider-Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “X-Men”) lacking a feature-film version.How to film it: Even George Clooney admits he made a bad Batman, but we think he'd be great for Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards, the rubber-bodied scientist and leader of the FF. Paul Giamatti, who was wonderfully grumpy in “American Splendor,” has the right slouch and salt-of-the-earth attitude for the rocky-orange Thing. Dr. Doom, the egotistical antihero and longtime enemy of Mr. Fantastic, would be well played by Gary Oldman. Namor the Sub-Mariner, the undersea prince who's got a love-hate relationship with us surface-dwellers, could be Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”). He has the right physical proportions, but more importantly can get an angry glint in his eye that's especially Namorian.

Watchmen
What is it?
Alan Moore's masterpiece reinvented the superhero genre by injecting it with a dose of gritty realism, and features a plotline that is as beautifully structured as a fine Swiss clockwork.How to film it: First, don't do this one as a feature film — the story is so intricate it needs more than two or three hours to unfold. Make it a miniseries for television. Then, find director Terry Gilliam, who spent years battling to get the funding to film “Watchmen,” and hand him a magical winning lottery ticket. And who to cast? We could see Greg Kinnear as the blow-dried, apparently harmless supergenius Ozymandias, and or perhaps Ralph Fiennes, so powerful in a similar role in David Cronenberg's “Spider,” as the paranoid vigilante Rorschach. Robert De Niro would be terrific as the right-wing assassin known as the Comedian, and as for the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, we can't improve on a recent fan-created poster circulating the Internet that puts Ed Harris in the blue makeup.

The Lockhorns
What is it?
Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn, stars of the newspaper cartoon strip, are a frumpy, ill-tempered married couple on the wrong side of middle age. (To be honest, it's pretty old-fashioned, but can be funny if you have a fondness for Henny Youngman humor.)How to film it: Who'd be better than the actors who were hilarious trapped in the most sourly awful marriage on TV? Reunite George Costanza's parents from “Seinfeld,” Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris.

Hellblazer
What is it?
Originally a supporting character in Alan Moore's “Swamp Thing,” magic-wielding detective John Constantine went on to star in his own title fighting the forces of darkness and damnation, usually at great cost to himself.How to film it: Well, they're already filming this, in fact, with Keanu Reeves under the title “Constantine.” To us, he just doesn't seem right for the part. First, he's not blond, which of course can be fixed with the help of the superheroine known as Lady Clairol. But also, the defining characteristic of John Constantine is his supreme wiliness — he's always three steps ahead of any villain he's up against, human or demon. Keanu, well, he'll have a hard time pulling that off. Constantine's look was based on Sting, who could certainly do a creditable job with the role — but we think it should have gone to Denis Leary, who not only looks the part, but has the world-weary bitterness that makes Constantine tick.

Peanuts
What is it?
For years after Charles Schulz' death, still the most popular newspaper strip ever, thanks in part to classic animated holiday cartoons like “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”How to film it: One big problem with the TV “Peanuts” toons was that the child actors providing the voices were, sorry to say, uniformly atrocious. Let's avoid that in our hypothetical live-action version by catching up with the Peanuts Gang as grownups, in a “what if” story set thirty years after the comic strip. Start with a director who has a good feel for quirky family stories — we're thinking Wes Anderson of “The Royal Tenenbaums.” It's not such a weird idea, since it would allow you to cast actors with recognizable names and faces. (Which is basically what happened in the 1960s play “You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” starring Gary Burghoff of “M*A*S*H.”) Maybe you could cast Snoop Dogg as Snoopy. (Hmmm... maybe not.) Kevin James, star of “The King of Queens,” has the right sad-sack persona and rotund visage (he's fat, you know) to play Charlie Brown. Matthew Broderick has the vulnerability and intelligence for boy philosopher Linus — and for Sally Brown, who's in love with him, how about Sarah Jessica Parker, Broderick's real-life wife? Round out the cast with Roseanne Barr as Lucy, Jack Black as Pigpen, and Tom Hulce of “Amadeus” as Schroeder. And for Peppermint Patty, Ellen Degeneres.

Cerebus: “High Society” and “Church & State”What is it? Indie creator Dave Sim made comic-book history for independently producing this gargantuan 300-issue series about a tyrannical barbarian aardvark. (Surprisingly, no one had ever tried to tell such a long story about a tyrannical barbarian aardvark before.) He also became infamous for off-putting, misogynistic rants that had some wondering about his mental health. But at his peak, in the second, third and fourth “Cerebus”volumes, Sim was unparalleled for political intrigue and an absurdist sense of humor that found their best expression in the character Uncle Julius, the best Groucho Marx since “Duck Soup.” How to film it: Danny De Vito is not only as short and compact as Cerebus, but he's got a growly mean side that would match the Cerebus temper perfectly. The best person to play Julius, the ruler of Palnu, would be Groucho Marx himself, but he hasn't made a film since 1968, and probably couldn't be coaxed back from the dead just for a single role. How about John Turturro? His Groucho imitation in 1992's “Brain Donors” was the best thing about that otherwise so-so comedy.

Marmaduke
What is it?
This wacky Great Dane gets into all kinds of misadventures in his daily newspaper strip. How to film it: This is a marvelous opportunity for an overlooked but highly talented actor to avoid being typecast by his one previous box-office hit, and show his range as an actor. We're talking about the computer-generated dog from “Scooby-Doo.” I mean, c'mon — roles for Great Danes don't grow on trees.

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