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Modern superhero films.

Remember those Superman films in the late 70s and early 80s? OK, weren't they? Not particularly memorable. Now contrast the caped Clark Kent's capers with Lex Luthor with Spider-Man's epic train battle with Dr Octopus in last year's Spider-Man 2. There is no contest. It is an undisputed fact of life that modern superhero film adaptations are a damn good reason to go to the cinema every summer.

It all kicked off with Batman, the Caped Crusader given a typically Tim Burton treatment, the director choosing to concentrate of the Dark Knight character rather than Adam West's camp comedy outings, mostly fondly remembered for the 'thocks!' and 'kapows' in the fights.

Then we suddenly had Batman as not a very nice bloke if he felt like it, haunted into becoming the scourge of nighttime villainry by the murder of his parents. It led to a wonderful chicken-and-egg situation with the fantastic Jack Nicholson as the Waynes' murderer transformed into the Joker after Batman upends him into a vat of brightly coloured chemicals.

And then it all went wrong, sliding so quickly downhill that by the time George Clooney donned the black cape in Batman and Robin, the franchise had found itself unceremoniously dumped in the top 10 all time biggest turkeys list.

But all was not lost. Bryan Singer, the brilliant young director behind The Usual Suspects, announced he would be taking on the X-Men series. Choosing wisely to centre in on the dark and brooding Wolverine (with Hugh Jackman making the accompanying female partner's trip to the flicks a not altogether unpleasant experience), Singer made a decent film that broke new celluloid ground in trying to get beneath the skin of a superhero and find out what makes him tick. Of course, Marvel has been spending years fixating on the drawbacks of all these powers - in particular, the loneliness of the outsider - and it was something that X-Men did convincingly.

By the time the second one came around, Singer had wisely chosen to put the boring ones (Storm, Cyclops) in the background and introduce the really intriguing Nightcrawler, who opened X-Men 2 with a stunning attack on the White House.

Singer had set the bar, but others would clear it. Next came Sam Raimi, responsible for the cult Evil Dead series, who got given a small fortune to do Spider-Man properly. All the Hollywood gossip was about the wisdom of leaving such a large budget in the hands of a fringe talent. But, just as Peter Jackson proved with Lord of the Rings that he could outgrow splatter flicks, Raimi rose to the challenge.

Again, we saw Spider-Man complete with his growing pains, and it was a decent first movie. The only thing that slightly marred the soup for fans was that the Green Goblin, perhaps Spidey's greatest adversary, was given so little weight, and bumped off so quickly. Never mind, you can be sure his son Harry will be back as the HobGoblin and, boy, does he have an axe to grind with former pal Parker.

Spider-Man was made to look good if not fantastic because it's sequel was so stunning. This time, we see the experienced Peter Parker almost flying with minimal support from his webs, so accomplished has he become. But, as life piles in on top of him, he begins to lose confidence, and his abilities go with it. Of course, they return, to see off Doc Ock, an awesome villain, not least because he is a well-meaning scientist who finds himself in thrall to the additional arms he's created. The massacre in the emergency room, as those tentacles fight back when surgeons attempt to remove them, is chilling for what the camera doesn't show.

But Spider-Man 2 has a contender for greatest superhero film in Hellboy, a little known character outside of those who inhabit Forbidden Planet and other shops stocking graphic novels (the correct term for grown-up comics). He's a demon who fights baddies, basically, but does it with tons of bad attitude and a very dry sense of humour. The film, expected to bomb, was done so expertly - not least with Ron Perlman in the title role - that they are now making a second one.

And expect to see X-Men 3. Here's hoping that we see The Beast.

Of course, there have been a host of also-rans, mostly competent and unremarkable rather than execrable. And there is Ang Lee's troubled adaptation of the Hulk, loved by some, despised by others. But this is the case with every other movie genre - whether it is westerns, gangster flicks or weepies. Spread the message.

Duncan Higgitt.: Comic comes to life:The latest film to draw its inspiration from a comic book is Constantine, based on the cult Hellblazer series. Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, originally an English character doomed to walk the earth until his death from terminal lung cancer, ostracised from both Heaven and Hell after a botched suicide attempt took him to the latter. So he resorts to fighting the half-demons he can see, along with half-angels, that walk the earth.

The comic is, of course, a lot darker, and Constantine a far less likeable character, caught in a nether world from which the only escape is death - and then his problems will really begin.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 30, 2005
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