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‘Elektra,’ avenger of ‘Catwoman’?

Special to The Times

THE comic book heroine Elektra made the leap from page to screen -- in the form of actress Jennifer Garner -- as star Ben Affleck’s love interest in the 2003 Fox/Regency film “Daredevil.” Now, she is poised to make another leap -- to the lead role -- when “Elektra” opens Friday.

And by the looks of things, when Elektra hits theaters, she could do some damage.

Audiences are certainly primed for a female action heroine who fights with the best of them. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” made $131 million domestically and both “Charlie’s Angels” movies killed at the box office ($125 million and $100 million, respectively), according to the film tracking company Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. The “Alien” series has performed well in theaters since the first film appeared in 1979.

In fact, so many strong women have been battling the bad guys at the box office for years now that it’s hard to believe “Elektra” is only one of a handful of comic book heroines to carry a film.

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“This is a genre that’s pretty much untested,” said Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian.

The most recent effort was Warner Bros.’ “Catwoman,” which came out last summer. Starring Halle Berry, the film was a critical and box office failure, costing a reported $100 million to make and earning just over $40 million domestically.

But to comic book aficionados, “Catwoman” is not the standard against which movies based on comic book heroines should be measured.

“It was created as a ‘Catwoman’ in name only,” explained Tony Edwards, manager and buyer for the venerable Golden Apple Comics store in Los Angeles.

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As true aficionados know, Catwoman was Batman’s nemesis, but not so in the Berry version: “It had none of the connection to the ‘Batman’ mythos at all,” said Edwards.

Among comic book fans, that was a huge faux pas and alienated what could have been a built-in audience.

The word among “Elektra” fans is that the filmmakers are staying faithful to the original material.

“Everyone is really excited about it,” said Tony Archer, a Golden Apple staffer, about the movie’s buzz among the customers. “It’s supposed to be spot on.”

For those not in the comic book know, the character of Elektra was created by Frank Miller and first appeared in “Daredevil” issue No. 168, in 1980. (“Daredevil” was created by famed writer Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett.) Subsequently, “Elektra” has appeared in spates of comic books over the years and more recently has been the subject of a continuing series.

Back from the dead, again

Elektra starts out as a nice girl, but after losing her mother and father to violent ends, she begins struggling with her inner demons and becomes, among other things, an assassin. The story in the movie has its origins in an ‘80s series by Greg Rucka and Yoshitaka Amano, in which Elektra is given a chance to atone for her crimes. Marvel Studios developed the movie with Fox and Regency, as it did “Daredevil.”

For those who saw “Daredevil” and watched as Elektra apparently died, how she manages a sequel will be a nice trick. Then again, she’s died and been resurrected at least twice in comic book form.

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“Elektra was too popular to stay dead,” said Edwards. “The fans demanded that she be brought back.”

“Daredevil” may not have gathered raves, but it made bank -- more than $100 million domestically -- and Garner was one reason for the movie’s success. According to Fox studio’s research, “people coming out of ‘Daredevil’ loved her performance and loved her character,” said Jeffrey Godsick, Fox’s executive vice president for marketing.

The actress holds strong appeal from a variety of angles. Her starring role as a double agent in the successful ABC drama “Alias” has her as a powerful action heroine. The show started its fourth season Wednesday, serendipitous timing for the movie’s opening. Additionally, Garner’s 2004 romantic comedy “13 Going on 30" introduced her to a young female fan base.

For a film like this to be successful, “you have to have a female character that appeals to women and men,” Dergarabedian said. “I think what’s going to make or break this movie is Jennifer Garner, her star power. Men like her, women like her -- they’re not put off by her -- so I think that bodes well for the success of the movie.”

According to producer Avi Arad, president and CEO of Marvel Studios, there had been talk about making an Elektra movie even before work had started on “Daredevil.” The filmmakers saw hundreds of actresses for the role. But it wasn’t until the day they cast Garner that they knew they would make “Elektra.”

“You need to have an actor that can project warmth and toughness,” said Arad. For a character such as Elektra, “you have to have a character that allows audiences to forgive,” said Arad, “to have empathy and sympathy for her and go along with her to find her way.”

He compares their good fortune in finding Garner to getting Hugh Jackman to portray Wolverine in “The X-Men.” He also noted that “X-Men” was loaded with powerful female characters. “Our women are very strong in the Marvel universe.”

Like other comic book movie plots, Elektra’s journey involves a number of supervillains with cool evil powers and a lot of dazzling fight sequences. Her soul is tormented by loss and self-recrimination, not unlike Spider-Man’s. But she doesn’t have superpowers -- her skills are human, albeit heightened.

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“It’s not about being tougher, it’s not about conquest -- a lot of the things that drive men,” said director Rob Bowman (“The X-Files,” “Reign of Fire”). “Because she’s a woman there are maternal instincts, which I’ve played on a great deal,” as the plot involves Elektra’s reluctant protection of a young girl.

For fans of the original comic heroine, Garner’s star power isn’t as important as her determination to get the role right.

“I was as focused as I’ve ever been before,” she related via e-mail. “I lived and breathed this character. I was just completely myopic in my vision of what needed to happen every day,” which included doing her own fighting in the action scenes.

The comic book community has followed the film’s development closely and knows that Garner did her homework, reading everything she could about Elektra and training hard for the physically demanding role.

“She’s dedicated, you’ve got to respect that,” said Archer, the Golden Apple employee.

On the fans’ wavelength

The respect is mutual.

In “Daredevil,” one criticism leveled by the comic book legions was that Elektra wore black rather than her signature red. This time around, the red outfit is back, although modified somewhat for modesty.

Not only did they suit her up right, but Fox’s Godsick and his staff made sure the fan base knew about it.

Press members from over a dozen Internet outlets were invited to the set during production. The first clip released, while the movie was in production, was last August at Comic-Con, the comic book convention.

“We want the fans to know when we do things specifically for them,” said Godsick, adding that the fans have to be part of the process for the film to be successful.

So will “Elektra” pave the way for comic book heroine movies, not to mention a string of sequels? Of course -- if it’s a hit, that is.

But even with all the right elements in place, it ultimately comes down to whether audiences like the movie. Marketing can give even a bad film a huge opening weekend, “but if they want it to have legs, it has to hold up as at least a solid movie,” said Dergarabedian.

Elektra, with her heightened anticipatory skills, may be able to see what’s coming. The rest of us mortals can only speculate.


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