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Those Mean Guys From the Comics : A slew of characters invade the big screen . . . and most are as bad as the bad guys

Dick Tracy has gone head to head with B. B. Eyes, Pruneface, Flattop and countless other criminals in 57 years of crimebusting in the comics. He shoots first, then asks questions.

Now the copper with the square jaw may be headed for a shoot-out with other mighty heroes coming to a movie theater near you.

In his time, Tracy was tough. Recall the words of his creator, the late Chester Gould: “I decided that if the (real) police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create a fellow who would.”

But in the approaching movie trend in super crusaders, the heroes are not only tough, they’re nearly as nasty as the bad guys they are chasing. Some of these guys--and gals--are mean. Chalk it up to recent cinema tastes in disturbed, Rambo-like heroes.

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The “Dick Tracy” project has been announced and de-announced several times. But the folks at the Disney Co.'s Touchstone Pictures affirm, swear and insist that this time it’s a go.

Budgeted at a reported $22 million to $25 million, it will begin filming in January with Warren Beatty super-starring, directing and producing.

(Beatty won’t discuss plot, but we have learned that ladylove Tess Trueheart is on hand.)

We don’t know just how tough this new Tracy will be, but if he’s anything like the rest of the comics heroes heading for the big screen, watch out. . . .

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A meaner Batman than you would expect is on the way. The aptly named Punisher is due. The Swamp Thing will come back for seconds (in “The Return of Swamp Thing”). After being entrapped in the Hollywood development web, Spider-Man is finally tearing through, too. (Brenda Starr’s due, too, after being shelved due to legal entanglements. The film’s a send-up, but she’ll be plucky.

Meanwhile, in projects still unfolding: Judge Dredd, the Watchmen, Whisper the lady ninja, the neo-ninja Elektra, the Green Lantern, super-agent Nick Fury, Blade (a vampire hunter who does in bloodsuckers by throwing a you-know-what), the Fantastic Four, Plastic Man, American Flagg, X-Men’s Wolverine, Sub-Mariner, Ant Man and the Japanese samurai master and his son, Lone Wolf and Cub.

And that’s just some of them! (See adjoining chart.)

The twist to this new screen assault: There are no more Mr. Nice Guys and Gals.

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The Punisher, a self-proclaimed enemy of crime, is near-psychotic; Judge Dredd, who wears an ominous metal mask that covers most of his face, is judge, jury and sometimes executioner as he patrols Mega City One in the year 2000.

Lone Wolf--once the shogun’s assassin (a high honor, in 16th-Century Japan)--now fights his way across the land in dishonor (framed for something he didn’t do), accompanied by his young son.

Elektra, former girlfriend of Daredevil (more on him, later), was trained by an evil organization of Asian-based assassins known as The Hand. She’s deadly!

Batman is tormented by horrific memories from his childhood (he witnessed the brutal murders of his parents). Now he darts in and out of the nighttime shadows of Gotham City in search of criminals. But . . . sometimes he seems to be pursuing the demons within himself.

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This bunch is decidedly less nice than yesteryear’s heroes, who might have been ruthlessly efficient in destroying criminals but who had plenty of “heart.”

Just as styles, society and times have changed, so have our comics heroes. As DC Comics’ Editor Denny O’Neil put it, “We do seem to reflect the preoccupations of our readers.”

Hollywood has been reading the comics for a long time. A few of the many heroes in serials: Batman, Terry of Terry and the Pirates, Superman, Blackhawk, Captain Marvel, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Captain America and Don Winslow of the Navy.

There have been TV shows based on comics (next year on CBS: “Tarzan in Manhattan”) and movies, lots of them. (Tarzan’s been the subject of more than 30.)

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Among them have been recent hits: notably, “Superman” and “Superman II” and the two ‘Conans.” And mega-bombs: “Popeye,” “Superman III” and “Superman IV.” And, of course, that little feathered fiend, “Howard the Duck.”

‘Hollywoodization’

Movies based on comics can cost a bundle. This is especially so when the comics involve fantastic, non-human-looking characters and the unique worlds they often inhabit--all of which can require costly sets and special effects.

But even more important than making the characters is making moviegoers believe the characters. “And the characters must be believable. That’s the key,” stressed Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ publisher/creative head.

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He added: “There must also be a fantastic angle--and the audience must suspend belief in that one area. You have to believe that whenever Bruce Banner becomes angry, he becomes the Incredible Hulk. And that Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man) truly has a spider’s abilities. If that doesn’t work, your story isn’t going to work.”

The “Hollywoodization” of comics is a touchy issue.

On one hand, comics fans believe that their heroes should be faithfully adapted for the screen. And sometimes that works. Superman is a case in point. Just think how disappointed everyone would have been if the Man of Steel’s image had been altered.

On the other hand, not all characters are icons like Superman. Take the slightly less than universally known Judge Dredd. Charles Lippincott, producer of the now-in-development “Judge Dredd,” says that to introduce non-comics fans to the character, “We’re talking about not having his face covered with the (trademark) mask throughout the movie.”

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Admitted Lippincott: “It’s a tricky situation. You want to stay loyal to the character and the fans. But you must also, in essence, play to a whole new audience.

“This is something we’ve discussed heavily. We think we can make it work. It isn’t our intention to destroy the property.”

“Batman” screenwriter Sam Hamm confessed that he was taken aback the day he walked into a comics shop “and encountered these diatribes against Michael Keaton--and a petition to stop the Batman movie.”

Warner Bros.’ now-filming $30-million “Batman” has been the subject of hard scrutiny from many fans.

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The reason: They don’t approve of the casting of non-macho comedy king Keaton in the title role. Some fans don’t much like the notion of Jack Nicholson as The Joker, either. (They’re worried that he’ll camp it up.) Then there’s the fact that comedy meister Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice,” “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”) is directing what is reportedly not a comedy.

The “Batman” protests recently captured front-page coverage in an unlikely place--the stuffy Wall Street Journal, which headlined: “Batman Fans Fear the Joke’s on Them in Hollywood Epic.”

Today, Batman has a physique that rivals Rambo’s. And once he’s out of his Batgarb and into his Bruce Wayne persona, his good looks could send a girl swooning. (No, sorry, Bruce seldom has time for sex. Said DC Comics’ O’Neil: “We always joke that there are two dozen debutantes in Gotham City who have been kissed on the forehead at 11 o’clock at night.”)

To compensate for Keaton’s “ordinary guy” build, the film makers are putting him in a Batcostume that has a kind of armor plating. “He will look awesome,” promised Batman creator Bob Kane, who pleads for fans to “give the guy (Keaton) a chance.”

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Kane, who created Batman in 1939, further stressed that this will not be a comedy: Forget the wacky 1966 feature movie that was inspired by the wacky television series that starred Adam West.

Batman’s changed--and not just physically. As DC Comic’s O’Neil explained: “The original Batman (of the ‘30s) was dark and foreboding. The Batman saga is essentially about the night--and shadows in the night. And the fact that somebody in those shadows is on your side.”

In the ‘50s, O’Neil said, the character’s dangerous edge disappeared and he became “a kind of scoutmaster.”

The ‘60s saw the Batguy get silly--with a little help from the (KAPOW! BAM!) TV series. But in the ‘70s he once again turned serious (most notably via a series of stories in Detective Comics).

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Then, in 1986, came the publication of “The Dark Knight Returns.”

Landmark ‘Knight’

“The Dark Knight” is the celebrated symbol of the changes that have been taking place in the comics world.

Now in its seventh printing as a Warner Books trade paperback, it was originally published in a four-comic series by DC.

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A lot has been written about the book--and its bleak vision of a city and a society in decay. And of an aging (50ish) and disillusioned Bruce Wayne who decides to come out of his self-imposed retirement for do-or-die battles with Gotham City’s vermin.

Frank Miller, 31, the book’s writer, who also created Elektra, has become a genre star. (And now Hollywood’s courting him: Miller is now working on the script for “RoboCop II.”)

And a whole avalanche of comics--with story lines and themes that aren’t intended for 12-year-olds--have invaded the shelves.

Some of it is pretty far out. (Parents: Do you know what your kid is reading?)

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Consider “The Killing Joke"--the ultimate Batman-Joker duel: Commissioner Gordon’s daughter is beaten, stripped naked and photographed. The commissioner is kidnaped, stripped, tortured, bound and gagged and imprisoned inside the fun-house at a deserted amusement park. There, he is forced by the Joker to watch slides of his battered daughter.

Then there’s Daredevil--a.k.a. Matt Murdock. A blind crime fighter with heightened senses (the result of exposure to radioactivity), he’s lately been whooping it up with a gal named Typhoid Mary. She’s got the power to stir up sexual frenzy! Oh, Typhoid Mary also has a split personality; one side loves Daredevil, the other wants to kill him.

For a comics scenario pushed to the max, there’s The Vigilante. Rather, there was The Vigilante. In the final book of a series, the judge--who turned vigilante after he tired of seeing criminals being set free--finally flipped out, put a gun inside his mouth and pulled the trigger.

(The super-violent “Vigilante” books also had an off-kilter sexual tone. Consider the Vigilante’s “romantic” encounter with female mercenary Blackthorne, who broke into his apartment, beat him up, shredded her clothes and tore away at his. And then they had sex.)

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Punishing Back

The one-man anti-criminal death squad known as the Punisher used to be a cop named Frank Castle. It was after the brutal murders of his wife and children that Castle disappeared--and later re-emerged with his new identity.

Marvel’s Carl Potts, who writes/edits the two ongoing Punisher books (“The Punisher,” “The Punisher’s War Journal”), believes his appeal is emotionally cathartic. “He’s doing what the reader wishes he could do. He’s fighting back.”

Hardly a fun guy to be around, the Punisher is so tormented by his acts that he constantly mulls over his fears in talks with God/his conscience.

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“He’s as much punished as punisher. What we have here is a man who’s in a moral psychosis,” said Robert Mark Kamen. Kamen--who is best known as the creator of the benign screen hero, “The Karate Kid"--is executive producer/co-screenwriter of “The Punisher.” Filmed for about $10 million, it’s due in the spring from New World Pictures.

It stars Dolph Lundgren, who, until he was approached about doing the film, hadn’t heard about the character.

“I thought it sounded pretty corny--because of that title.” But after familiarizing himself with the character, he said, “I knew I’d found something different, something unpredictable. I’m a bit of a psycho in this one--you know?”

At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Lundgren will cut an imposing figure in black leather and 5 o’clock shadow.

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That’s a switch from the character’s “look” in the comics--where he wears a Lycra shirt emblazoned with a large, ominous white skull. (For the screen, the trademark skull will be relegated to a design on the handle of Lundgren’s knife.)

But, Kamen stressed, a movie is not a comic: “We were striving for realism . . . This guy lives in a sewer pipe with a Harley. He wouldn’t take the time to get a Lycra suit with a skull on it. He’s not the kind of guy who gets spiffed up before he goes out to kill. His clothes are utilitarian.”

He added: “I know some purists will be offended. But others will be able to better relate.”

Spidey & Swampy

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Don’t look for Spider-Man to be decked out in his famed red and blue Spidey costume throughout his upcoming movie.

“We’re taking ‘Spider-Man’ the ‘Dark Knight-ish’ way,” said director Albert Pyun, who explained: “We’ll focus on Spider-Man’s origins. How he came to be (he was bitten by a radioactive spider). He won’t come up with his costume until the final third of the movie.”

Pyun acknowledged that “Spider-Man,” for Cannon Films, will have a limited budget (of $7 million to $10 million), especially when compared to big spenders such as “Dick Tracy” and “Batman.”

“That’s always on our mind. So, what we can’t do monetarily, we’ll do with ideas. It may sound nervy to say this, but, we’re not backing off.”

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(Pyun previously put a shoestring budget of $2 million to critically admired use in the 1982 sleeper, “The Sword and the Sorcerer.”)

“Spider-Man,” said Pyun, will be “a ‘what if’ film,” dealing with 17-year-old Peter Parker, who becomes alienated after moving from the Midwest to New York. “If you were to follow his character arch, he could eventually end up like Travis Bickle (the psychotic character played by Robert De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’).”

When Swamp Thing resurfaces, he will be an essentially doomed romantic figure. “The Return of Swamp Thing” will be “very ‘Beauty and the Beast'-like,” according to director Jim Wynorski.

The $7-million sequel marks the return of Louis Jourdan as the evil Dr. Arcane and Dick Durock as the oozy hero (“there’s a new costume; this is a new, improved Swamp Thing,” promised Wynorski). As Swamp Thing’s love interest, Heather Locklear will get the hero to dreaming about what it would be like if he were a man again. . . .

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One of the most romantic comic characters, Swamp Thing is further distinguished by having several unique powers: the ability to turn his sludgy body into a pool of ooze and the ability to restore life. “That’s pretty major,” Wynorski deadpanned.

The Tracy Files

Venerable guy that he is, Dick Tracy has already had quite a Hollywood career.

It started with the 1937, 15-chapter serial, “Dick Tracy.” Ralph Byrd, who played Tracy, went on to reprise the role in serials in 1938, 1939 and 1941. Another actor (Morgan Conway) played Tracy in two feature films.

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Then, by popular demand, Byrd returned. He starred in several features--as well as the “Dick Tracy” TV series of 1950-51.

There have been animated Tracy productions, too. And a long-running radio show. And as befits a strip that was once read by 29 million readers in more than 650 newspapers, hundreds of merchandising items.

Ultimately, time took its toll on Tracy. (Efforts in the late 1960s to revive the strip included sending Tracy to the moon.)

Today, with the Tracy strip appearing in only about 160 newspapers, Dick has been relegated to a nostalgia figure. Can Beatty breathe new life into the legend?

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The Beatty Files

Beatty, of course, is legendary himself in his aversion to press interviews. So we had to send over written questions about his on-again, off-again efforts to make “Dick Tracy.” Beatty “faxed” over a two-paragraph response, which reads in part:

“I like (the project) because it takes me back to a time in my childhood when I read Chester Gould’s comic strip and values seemed clearer.”

Asked about the film’s longtime development period, he chided: “It hasn’t ‘required a long development period.’ It just hasn’t been made yet. Let’s not condemn the poor souffle for that.”

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But, fact is, “Dick Tracy” has been bouncing around town for about 10 years.

In 1977, producer Michael S. Laughlin (“Joanna,” “Two Lane Blacktop”) said he spent the past two years trying to persuade Universal Pictures to do the project. “As I saw it, it was a classic American subject . . . Gould is America’s Dickens.” But, Laughlin was quoted as saying, “Major stars were all afraid of playing cartoon characters.” Finally, he lost the rights.

“Tracy” rebounded in the early ‘80s--during which time it cruised several studios and was linked to directors John Landis and Walter Hill and to actor Clint Eastwood.

Beatty’s interest in playing Tracy--the project was then at Paramount--was first reported in June, 1983. Then, in October, he took a hike. Reports in The Times said Beatty had exited because the studio wouldn’t comply with his salary demands of $5 million plus 15% of the gross of the film (then budgeted at $25 million).

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Beatty’s departure generated speculation over who would step into the trademark hat and trenchcoat. According to the Hollywood Reporter’s Hank Grant, the likely contenders were Richard Gere, Tom Selleck and Mel Gibson. Daily Variety’s Army Archerd said Harrison Ford was a possibility.

But Beatty never abandoned the project. He returned as director--as well as star.

As a sign that everything that goes around comes around: When “Tracy” was at Paramount, the project’s fans included Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner--president of production and studio president, respectively. And now they run Disney.

On the future of comics-turned-movies: Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee is hopeful, but philosophical. “You have to remember that some of these (projects) have been floating around for decades.”

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In other words, guys like Dick Tracy are having to tough it out in what denizens of Hollywood refer to as Development Hell.

Frank Miller of “Dark Knight” legend wonders if Hollywood isn’t going overboard in its efforts and costs to bring comic books to the screen. Said Miller: “I don’t think they realize how simple this stuff is.” (He politely chose not to comment on the “Batman” movie.)

The future rests with the first heroes out the gate. Said Marvel’s Carl Potts: “Keep your fingers crossed. A bunch of bad movies could come out and kill off (the trend) for the next 20 years.”


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