By Bill Radford
Maybe Marvel's comics should start coming with a bucket of popcorn.
Marvel superheroes will dominate the big screen this year, starting with "Ghost Rider" on Feb. 16. "Spider-Man 3" arrives in theaters May 4, followed by "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" on June 15.
Kevin Feige, president of production for Marvel Studios, said the company takes the same approach whether tackling a much-beloved character such as Spider-Man or a lesser-known one such as Ghost Rider.
"We know there's a hard-core group of loyal, loving fans of any given property, whether it's Spider-Man or the X-Men or the Fantastic Four or Ghost Rider," he said. The studio works to please those fans by staying true to the character while also appealing to a broader audience by not getting bogged down in comic book continuity or minutiae.
"It's really about telling the best story and staying true to the origins of the character," Feige said.
"Ghost Rider," he said, will introduce one of the Marvel universe's quirkier characters to moviegoers. "Nicolas Cage plays Johnny Blaze, who finds himself overcome by certain forces, turning into this incredibly bad-ass, chopper-riding, flaming-skull hero."
For Cage, a comics fan who was set to star as Superman under director Tim Burton before that project died, "Ghost Rider" provides the chance to finally play a superhero on the big screen. "I'm sure he would tell you it was a dream of his to do this," Feige said.
While "Ghost Rider" is just the start for Johnny Blaze, "Spider-Man 3" continues the story of Peter "Spider-Man" Parker, played by Tobey Maguire. He'll face new threats this time: Sandman and Venom.
Don't expect the third installment to be the end for the highly successful franchise. "We've been telling stories in the comic books for over 40 years, and we can be telling stories on the big screen for years to come," Feige said. But he wouldn't say whether Maguire or director Sam Raimi will be part of that future, saying the focus is on "Spider-Man 3."
"Rise of the Silver Surfer" is a sequel to 2005's "Fantastic Four." There had long been talk of developing Marvel's cosmic Silver Surfer in his own film. But ultimately, Feige said, "we at Marvel decided, you know what, it would be best to introduce him as he was in the comics, which was on an adventure with the Fantastic Four.
"And if that works out, we would love to spin him into his own movies."
Marvel Studios teamed with Sony Pictures for "Ghost Rider" and "Spider-Man 3" and 20th Century Fox for "Rise of the Silver Surfer." It plans to go solo with several other movies.
"We've had nothing but great experiences with our partnerships, and I think it just comes down frankly to a business decision of enjoying more of the reward," Feige said.
First up will be "Iron Man," starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow. Filming begins in a few weeks, with a release date set for May 2, 2008.
A key challenge has been designing the high-tech armor that the character of Tony Stark dons to become Iron Man. "We've had artists working on it for nearly a year now," Feige said, "designing what I believe is the single most successful translation of a character from comics to the big screen, and the best version of the suit that has ever existed."
A 2008 release date is also set for "The Incredible Hulk." The green-skinned behemoth first stormed into theaters in director Ang Lee's "Hulk" in 2003. Feige says he's proud of the angst-ridden first film.
But he's eager to deliver a movie that explores a different angle of the Hulk, "which is that element of wish fulfillment, of overcoming an injustice or a bully and tapping into a strength that you didn't quite realize you had in yourself."
It looks like a tiny hero also will have his moment on the big screen. Writer/director Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") is working on the script for an Ant-Man movie.
"After that, it's hard to talk too far in the future," Feige said, "but Captain America and Thor and Black Panther and the Avengers are all on our development slate right now."
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