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Super stars

Like many young boys, and a growing number of girls, Sam Clay grew up fantasizing about doing great things. Super great things. As one of the two title characters in Michael Chabon’s novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” 17-year-old Sam “dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” His dreams ultimately would come true, more or less, through the World War II-era comic-book superheroes he would create with his cousin, Josef Kavalier. But long before then, Sam’s major form of escape came through his active imagination.

“He had devoted an embarrassing number of hours of mute concentration – brow furrowed, breath held – to the development of his brain’s latent powers of telepathy and mind control,” Chabon wrote.

The importance of superheroes to overall pop culture can be found in that very line. Who among us hasn’t dreamed, at least once during his or her life, of having abilities to … well, leap over tall buildings in a single bound?

At the very least.

Or, as Tony Stark – ably played by Robert Downey Jr. – discovers in Jon Favreau’s adaptation of the comic book “Iron Man” (which opened on Friday), maybe you can even save lives, rectify wrongs, make justice work for everyone and not just for those who can purchase it.

In the history of film, superheroes have taken all shapes and forms, from the gleaming bullet known as Superman to the ultimate dark knight Batman, from the glistening bad boy called The Hulk to those genetically altered beings referred to collectively (regardless of their gender) as X-Men.

The most popular – the ones, at least, that people have paid the most to see – run the range of what it means to be a superior being. Each, though, says something different about our needs, hopes and desires.

Of the superhero films that have topped the $100 million mark at the domestic box office (see sidebar), the respective most-popular characters are as follows:

Spider-Man

In three films – “Spider-Man” (2002), “Spider-Man 2” (2004) and “Spider-Man 3” (2007) – the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko co-creation has earned a cool $1.1 billion in domestic movie theaters alone (these, as with all box-office estimates used for this story, come from www.boxofficemojo.com).

That total makes the series the most popular based on a single superhero and second only to the three top “Star Wars” films: “Star Wars” (1977), “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” (1999) and “Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith” (2005), which so far have earned a total of $1.3 billion for creator George Lucas (and that doesn’t count either international or DVD revenues).

What’s the draw, though? Why would so many people flock to see films based on the hardly credible story of a scrawny teenager named Peter Parker (played perfectly in the movies by Tobey Maguire) getting bitten by a “radioactive spider,” an event that leads to the boy becoming a famed crime-fighter in public while retaining his secret identity as a teen nerd with his family and friends?

The draw, in a word, is love.

” ‘Spider-Man’ may look like an action comic come to life, but its best feature is its romance comic heart,” wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s that rare cartoon movie in which the villain is less involving than the love story.”

But, of course, the film’s appeal is more complicated than that. Because along with the bings and bangs and booms of new-school special effects, like all popular superheroes, life for Peter Parker isn’t always the hot side of the Happy Meal. As Turan points out, it’s about struggle. The fight for Peter, as with most humans his age, is one of finding out who he is – an exploration that isn’t alleviated by his “spidey sense.”

“Who am I?” he asks. “You sure you wanna know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just your average, ordinary guy, not a care in the world … somebody lied.”

Batman

Of course, when it comes to struggle, no one does emotional self-flagellation better than Bruce Wayne, aka Batman.

None of the movies, even the latest ones starring Christian Bale, is as dark as the more recent graphic novels (and that likely includes “The Dark Knight,” which on July 18 will bring us the late Heath Ledger as a reinvention of The Joker).

But darkness, as we all know, is a relative proposition.

In 1989, Tim Burton made us forget Adam West’s campy Batman of the 1960s. And thus it was Burton, whose original film follows the “Spider-Man” trilogy as the highest-grossing superhero film (with $251.2 million), who helped prepare the Gotham City badboy for 21st-century sensibilities – which Christopher Nolan and lead actor Bale further developed with 2005’s “Batman Begins” ($205.3 million) and Joel Schumacher continued with 1995’s “Batman Forever” ($184.1 million).

It’s legitimate to point out that Batman doesn’t have super powers. Though in superb shape and well-trained (as “Batman Begins” takes pains to point out), and equipped with all “those wonderful toys” – as Jack Nicholson’s Joker calls Wayne’s inventions – Batman doesn’t have super strength, x-ray vision or any of the other enhanced abilities that Peter Parker, for one, takes for granted.

But he does live by the same code as the other guardians of humanity, even if he, marked forever by the murders of his parents, hues more toward the essential vigilante conundrum: trying to find the right balance between rage and revenge.

Critic Manohla Dargis – writing in the New York Times about the 1986 “Batman” makeover done by graphic novelist Frank Miller – put it this way: “Like Mr. Miller’s Batman, Mr. Nolan’s is tormented by demons both physical and psychological. In an uncertain world, one the director models with an eye to our own, this is a hero caught between justice and vengeance, a desire for peace and the will to power.”

Struggle, then, isn’t just a point of therapy for Batman. It’s a life plan.

X-Men

Two of the three “X-Men” films – 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” ($234.4 million) and 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” ($214.9 million) – rank among the Top 10 superhero movies, and the third – 2000’s original “The X-Men” ($157.3 million) – comes in at No. 12.

What is an X-Man? Another Stan Lee creation (this time with Jack Kirby), the X-Men are mutant humans whose powers – of varying types that emerge, often, during puberty – represent what some see as a leap in evolution. Whatever the reason for this, the result is that, like other superheroes, they are distinct from ordinary humans, many of whom view them with distrust.

Unlike other superheroes such as those already mentioned, the X-Men often don’t – often can’t – hide behind secret identities. Like Bruce Banner’s alter-ego, The Hulk, X-Men typically find themselves unmasked when they become agitated.

Think of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his adamantium claws, which can become unsheathed at the most embarrassing moments. Think of Cyclops (James Marsden) and the “optic blasts” that force him to wear protective goggles. Think of Rogue (Anna Paquin), threatening to kill any boy she gets close enough to touch – or be touched by.

It’s this sense of separation that fuels the “X-Men” series. The mutants are split into those who feel an obligation to live with, and help, humans (led by Patrick Stewart’s Professor Charles Xavier) and those (led by Ian McKellan’s Magneto) who believe that they should take their rightful spot as Homo Superior and fight humanity’s attempts to control them.

Thus, we have a blend of “Spider-Man” and “Batman” all in one series: teen angst, self-loathing, the fight for civil rights and a battle between good and evil, all fueling the action – along with one other major feature.

As David Edelstein wrote of the “X-Men” series in the online magazine Slate, the “enduring appeal is its embrace of all varieties of alienation.”

There you have it: The X-Men are the Holden Caulfields of superheroes.

Superman

There are Yankee fans, and there are Red Sox fans. There are Coors swillers and Bud gulpers. There are those who listen to Miley Cyrus albums, and there are grownups.

In terms of superheroes, there are Batman fans – and there are Superman fans.

Where Batman is dark, Superman is light. It’s not much more complicated than that. Both are on the side of good, but Superman is the quintessence of good.

And that, for many people, makes the kid from Krypton too square for words, too much the eternal Boy Scout to embrace. Admire him we may, respect him certainly, but some superhero fans never took to Superman the way they tend to do the naturally arrogant.

Which is likely why only the most recent Superman film, 2006’s “Superman Returns,” sits in the Top 10 (at No. 8 with $200.1 million). Two others, 1978’s Christopher Reeve feature “Superman” ($134.2 million) and 1981’s “Superman II” ($108.1 million) rank at No. 15 and No. 18, respectively.

Yet Superman belongs on this list because no such menu of superheroes is relevant without him. He is the super being whose powers outstrip all others (which is another reason why some don’t like him; what’s the risk when the only thing that can harm you is a radioactive piece of your destroyed home planet?).

Judith Martin (better known these days as Miss Manners) wrote in her 1978 Washington Post review, “The character of ‘Superman,’ as derived from the early superhero comic tradition, is polite, patriotic and law-abiding. He doesn’t destroy villains as they would like to destroy him; he turns them over to the police ‘so they can get a fair trial.’ “

Being wrapped in that mantra of the American myth may feel retro, especially in a world that increasingly reveals itself through a gauze of grays. But such simplicity tends to offer at least some sense of comfort.

Others in the Top 20

Tarzan: What’s this one doing here? The 1999 kids’ film ranks at No. 10 ($171.1 million), but that’s more a result of its being an animated Disney adventure than any sense that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character – which dates cinematically back to 1918’s “Tarzan of the Apes” – appeals to today’s audiences.

Fantastic Four: The success of No. 13 ($154.7 million), the 2005 film “Fantastic Four” – which was followed by No. 17 “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” ($131.9 million) – depends largely on novelty (the four team members, created by Lee and Kirby, enjoy a range of powers and temperaments). And speaking of retro appeal, the sexist portrayal of the battling couple, Reed Richard and Susan Storm, is a leftover from the era of the comic book’s creation: 1961.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The 1990 version, which ranks at No. 14 ($135.3 million), was followed by three sequels and a new version, 2007’s “TMNT” (which grossed a hugely disappointing $54.1 million). Fluent in dude-speak, boasting a blend of talents and sharing a teen-spirit sense of zen-inspired righteousness, the four characters are novelty items. Toys passed off as battling brothers, they kick butt in ways that appeal mostly to those of us whose emotional ages dip, on occasion, to 6 and below.

Hulk: Known more through the 1978-82 television show, which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, this yet another Lee/Kirby creation mines the darkly rage-filled side of a mild-mannered scientist’s emotional makeup. Ang Lee’s 2003 movie adaptation ranks at No. 16 ($132.2 million), though Louis Leterrier adds his version on June 13, starring Edward Norton.

Daredevil: Ben Affleck played the blind superhero (a creation of Lee and Bill Everett), who fights for right with the help of heightened senses similar to Spider-Man’s. Definitely a second-stringer, even if the 2003 film fills the final spot in our top 20 ($102.5 million), Daredevil has returned to where he belongs: superhero heaven.

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