What does it really take to become a superhero? Wikipedia simply defines a superhero as “a type of stock character, dedicated to protecting the public.”
What? No mention of capes or crazy gadgets? I guess because there are so many types of superheroes, Wiki decided to keep the definition vague.
Take, for instance, the lads in this weekend’s Chronicle. After uncovering a mysterious crater they develop telekinesis, flight and invulnerability all without the aid of butlers named Alfred, secret identities or spandex suits.
They’re just ordinary guys with extraordinary powers. Civilian superheroes, if you will.
But they’re not the first everyday movie characters to make the leap (sometimes over tall buildings) to become superheroes. The flickers are filled with stories of regular folks who become crusaders — some with extraordinary powers, and some without.
In Defendor, Woody Harrelson plays a man whose rich inner life spills out into his real life. By day he is dead-end-job Arthur, but by night he is Defendor, a masked superhero do-gooder. His task? To clean up the streets of Hamilton, Ont.
Speaking in comic book clichés — “Look out termites,” he says, “it’s squishin’ time!”— and with a duct tape “D” on his chest, Defendor and his homemade arsenal of weapons patrols the streets looking for crime to prevent. He’s a bit delusional, but his heart is in the right place.
“Who writes your dialogue?” asks a bad guy, “Spiderman?”
“No, I do it myself,” he answers innocently, before teaching the guy a lesson he won’t soon forget.
Based on a wild indie comic of the same name by Mark Millar, Kick-Ass tells a couple of intertwining stories. First up is Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a fanboy who creates a superhero alter ego called Kick-Ass as a way to boost his self-esteem. In life he says his only superpower is being invisible to girls, but when he dons the suit he becomes… only marginally more super.
His exploits, however, grab the attention of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz), a slightly psychotic father-and-daughter team of masked (and in Hit Girl’s case, wigged) avengers who admire Ass’s style and moxie. Defendor and Kick-Ass don’t have superpowers, but they do have cool costumes and the right attitude. That places them alongside other characters that helped redefine what it takes to be a superhero, the better-known movie heroes Batman and Iron Man.
Just as Maude spun off from the sitcom All in the Family superhero characters have often left the safety of the ensemble to strike out on their own. This weekend Wolverine leaves the comfort of Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted (read: Mutant) Youngsters to headline his own movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
It’s not uncommon for television and movie characters to appear in spin-offs, but why does the comic book world seem to spawn more ancillary projects than any other genre?
“Because superhero movies are based on strong characters with rich histories it’s almost impossible to fit all the most compelling aspects of these heroes and their key stories into one film,” says watchtowerpodcast.com comic book expert Jeff Moss. “That’s especially true in the case of ‘team’ stories. Even some of the peripheral characters in the X-Men universe have deep back-stories that would make for great movies.”
Among the first of those deep back stories producers tried to exploit sprung from the phenomenally successful Christopher Reeve Superman movies. 1984’s Supergirl is the story of Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, (Canadian Helen Shaver in her big screen debut), who leaves her isolated Kryptonian home to reclaim the powerful Omegahedron orb (which can infuse an artificial structure with life) from the evil witch Selena (Faye “I’m considering nothing less than world domination” Dunaway). Unlike its male oriented predecessors it was a critical debacle, but grabbed the number one slot at the box office on its opening weekend nonetheless.
Another female superhero spin-off didn’t even fare as well as Supergirl. Elektra, an offshoot from the 2003 movie Daredevil, should have been a slam dunk for star Jennifer Garner. Coming off the success of her butt-kicking secret agent series Alias, she should have aced the role of Elektra, an international assassin whose dispatches enemies with a deadly dagger but audiences stayed away. On its opening weekend it ranked 5th at the box office and only earned a 34 % rating on Metacritic.
Catwoman, Halle Berry’s Batman spin off, was an even bigger disaster, even ranking on Roger Ebert’s list of most hated films. Berry acknowledged the film’s failure when she accepted the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress. “I want to thank Warner Brothers. Thank you for putting me in a piece of sh**, God-awful movie…”
The ultimate superhero spin off and comic fan geek-out, however, is yet to come. The Avengers, featuring an all-star line-up including Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man and Captain America, already has a confirmed released date of May 4, 2012.
“The idea of a team movie with so many great actors–Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr., and Ed Norton—reprising their roles is too cool not to get excited about,” said Moss.