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How will it fly?

Times Staff Writer

STUDIOS love magazine stories that breathlessly hype their summer popcorn movies, so you would think that Warner Bros. might have been happy with Alonso Duralde’s cover story about “Superman Returns,” which gushed, “Superheroes -- let’s face it -- are totally hot.”

There was a twist: Duralde’s “Superman Returns” story was not in Entertainment Weekly or Newsweek or Premiere. It ran in the May 23 issue of the Advocate, the prominent national gay magazine, next to the headline: “How Gay Is Superman?”

The Man of Steel has been missing from the movies for 19 years, and now that he’s scheduled to fly into the multiplex on June 28, his worries may not be limited to Lex Luthor and kryptonite. Even at a time when moviegoers and awards organizations embraced the overtly gay love story “Brokeback Mountain,” there may be a different challenge for a mainstream action movie that happens to be attracting a gay following.

No one suggests that Superman in “Superman Returns” is, in fact, gay. But, as several entertainment and cultural writers have noted, superheroes hold obvious -- and growing -- gay appeal. In addition to being strikingly good-looking, the characters often are portrayed as alienated outsiders, typically leading double lives. In the case of Superman, the beefcake character historically has struggled with romance, all the while running around in a skin-tight suit.

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At issue now is whether that gay vibe will broaden the “Superman Returns” audience, or limit it.

Warners has a lot at stake with its long-delayed attempt to breathe life into the “Superman” franchise. The studio’s schedule is dominated by pricey sequels, prequels and remakes, but its first such effort this summer, “Poseidon,” sank faster than the boat. And “Superman Returns,” which will cost about $300 million to release with marketing costs added in, faces formidable competition from the latest installment in the blockbuster franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” which opens nine days after “Superman” lands in theaters.

Beyond the Advocate cover, which features the film’s star, Brandon Routh, in costume, industry blogs such as the Defamer website, which has become the online show business bible for many young industry executives, have been as obsessed with “Superman’s” gay appeal as Britney Spears’ parenting skills and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s new baby girl.

Defamer has posted a number of stories on how gay the “Superman Returns” posters and Topps trading cards make the character look, particularly in one trading card showing Superman literally coming out of a closet. “If Warner Bros. marketing partners like Topps aren’t even going to bother pretending, why should we?” Defamer asked. “Be proud, our fabulously caped little Queer-El.”

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Warner Bros. declined to comment. But the studio is reaching out to some gay moviegoers. Warners has bought “Superman Returns” advertising time on Logo, a year-old digital cable channel in 20 million homes that calls itself “the channel for Gay America.”

An informal poll of six veteran Hollywood marketing executives at rival studios revealed sharply divided opinions over how -- or even if -- “Superman’s” gay attention would affect the film. Two of the executives said the focus could actually expand the film’s audience, much as gay moviegoers have responded to the “X-Men” superhero series, which has been praised for its metaphorical plots about acceptance. The first two “X-Men” movies were directed by Bryan Singer, the openly gay filmmaker who also made “Superman Returns.” Singer did not respond to an interview request.

But four of the movie marketing executives, all of whom declined to speak on the record, said gay “Superman Returns” interest presented two potential box-office problems. First, teenage moviegoers, especially those in conservative states, might be put off by a movie carrying a gay vibe; among some teens, these executives agreed, saying something “is gay” is still the ultimate put-down. Second, the attention threatens to undermine the film’s status as a hard-edged action movie, making it feel softer, more romantic, and thus less interesting to young ticket buyers who crave pyrotechnics.

Though “Brokeback Mountain’s” gay love story proved to be a Hollywood breakthrough, unequivocally selling a ton of tickets and winning three Oscars, it was essentially an adult drama, which courts a very different audience than the high-octane action crowd that “Superman” needs to attract.

Bob Witeck, whose Washington marketing and public relations firm specializes in campaigns aimed at gay, lesbian and bisexual consumers, said an issue for any firm is to entice one constituency without alienating another.

Movie studios, Witeck said, “would love nothing more than to have buzz in [gay and lesbian] neighborhoods where people go to the movies a lot.” But a company pitching something like beer narrowly to gay and lesbian drinkers faces a possible backlash. “If you’re the gay beer, you’re not everybody’s beer,” said Witeck, whose firm is not working on “Superman Returns.”

Warners knows from its own history that too many gay associations can play a role in derailing a big summer movie, particularly one involving an established superhero.

In addition to drawing poor reviews and generating weak word-of-mouth, the studio’s 1997 summer release “Batman & Robin” was criticized for having too much homoerotic appeal, including nipples on Batman’s suit. George Clooney, the film’s star, has joked, “I could have played him straight but I didn’t. I made him gay.”

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The film barely grossed $100 million in domestic theaters, and Warners has said privately that “Batman & Robin” turned out so poorly that it nearly killed off the Caped Crusader franchise (the series was resuscitated with last year’s “Batman Begins,” a global blockbuster).

Despite the provocative headline, the Advocate story didn’t suggest that Superman was gay or that the film contained any subplot about an implicit or overt gay relationship; Warners has not yet shown the movie to journalists and has kept its plot under wraps.

Rather Duralde, the magazine’s arts and entertainment editor, wrote that “the iconography of superheroes definitely pushes a button or two with many gay men.”

Duralde said in an interview that he tried to speak with filmmaker Singer for his “Superman” story but was rebuffed. “We got a no, for whatever reason. It’s anybody’s guess,” Duralde said.

Despite the gay-branding issues “Superman” might face, there are a number of hit pop culture products that have benefited greatly from gay and lesbian fans.

The 1990s TV series “Xena: Warrior Princess” had a loyal and large following among lesbians (which the show courted) and the rock band Queen maintained a huge audience of young straight males despite the gay imagery of its name, music and stage shows. In comics, it has become increasingly common to not only create new gay characters but also to rework the mythology of long-time heroes to make them gay, as is the case with both Batwoman and Colossus.

Fox’s “X-Men” movies, with their themes of a mutant race fighting for respect and acceptance, are also a study in how a studio can find a significant audience in both the gay and straight world.

“Mutant/queer connections,” Robert Urban wrote in an article about “X-Men” for the gay media website www.afterelton.com, “abound in the films’ plot premises, underlying themes, and storyline. Even though none of the individual ‘X-Men’ characters are actually ‘gay’ in the movies, as a whole the mutants clearly function as a metaphor for queers.”

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In the second film in the series, the character Iceman essentially comes out to his family as a mutant. In the most recent “X-Men” sequel, there’s a character named Angel whose mutant status is discovered by his father, who then rejects him for being different.

“Yes, it’s a popular series with gays, and I’m thrilled,” said Lauren Shuler Donner, who served as a producer on all three “X-Men” films. “But they are also popular with everybody who at some point in their life has felt like an outsider.”

Urban, a gay musician and writer, said in an interview that “Superman” faces a different challenge than “X-Men.”

“ ‘Superman’ is a beefcake movie. ‘X-Men’ is not,” he said. “If you have too much beefcake out there, the 18- to 34-year-old [straight] men may think, ‘It’s not cool. It’s not us.’ ”


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