Posted: Mon., Apr. 14, 1997

A MANIA FOR MARVEL

Film arm plans horde of bigscreen heroics

NEW YORK --- The ongoing fight between finance titans Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn for control of Marvel Entertainment is having little effect on Marvel's film fortunes, despite a Chapter 11 restructuring in the works.

After years of making schlocky films deals while comic rival DC got screen versions of Superman and Batman, Marvel began turning things around four years ago after forming Marvel Studios. Run by chairman/CEO and Marvel legend Stan Lee, president Avi Arad and production and development veep Matt Edelman, Marvel Studios has turned into a hatchery for franchise fare.

Though the Marvelites wouldn't comment, they've formalized films ranging from "X-Men" to "Mort the Dead Teenager." They've also found an undeniable truth: Hollywood's biggest directors and stars believe in the power of superheroes.

Philip Kaufman, best known for directing such serious films as "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," has his own favorite: the moody Prince Namor, who rules the world beneath the sea. He's making a deal with Marvel to develop "Namor: Sub-Mariner."

While Marvel Studios hasn't placed that pic with a studio, it has scattered most of its heroes at studios all over town. That's turned out to be a blessing, since most of the deals pre-dated Marvel's bankruptcy woes. Fox alone has five potential Marvel franchises, two of which could be in production this year. Fox Family plans a summer 1998 release of "Silver Surfer," a Richard Jefferies-scripted actioner to be directed by Geoffrey Wright ("Romper Stomper") and produced by Constantin Films. The project was developed by Fox Family president Chris Meledandri and executive veep Jon Jashni.

Fox president of production Tom Rothman has four Marvel films. "Fantastic Four," with script by Mike France and Chris Columbus, will be directed by Pete Segal ("Tommy Boy"), produced by 1492 Prods. and Constantin Films. Segal replaces Columbus. The "Home Alone" director originally planned to helm the film on his favorite Marvel comic, but he pulled out.

A source said Columbus called things to a halt because the film he scripted with Mike France would have cost $165 million. Rothman denies budget had anything to do with it. Rather, he said, Columbus simply made the decision to produce. He injected a lot of humor into the script, leading the studio to court Segal.

Like "Silver Surfer" and most Marvel films, "Fantastic Four" will have a budget that stretches like the elastic Fantastic Four leader Reed Richards. Aside from him, there's a man who turns himself into a human torch, another made of rocks and a woman who becomes invisible. The CGI bill will be sizable.

"Fantastic Four" might get beaten to a start date by "X-Men," Marvel's wildly popular comic series, which will likely be the next film directed by Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") when he completes "Apt Pupil." Lauren Shuler-Donner is producing.

Singer has just hired "Men in Black" scribe Ed Solomon to work with him on "X-Men," which Fox wants for Xmas 1998. Rothman and Columbus are also in business with producer Ben Myron on "Daredevil," a film to be directed by Carlo Carlei.

Daredevil, the crimson-costumed blind superhero who relies on other heightened senses to battle bad guys, is Carlei's favorite superhero. Columbus wrote the script, and another writer's being brought in.

Despite reported plans to play Superman in a resuscitation of that franchise at Warner Bros., Nicolas Cage is still firmly attached to play his favorite Marvel hero, "Ironman," a cyborg-like warrior containing the crippled body of its inventor, Tony Stark. A script's being written for Cage by Jeff Vintar, to be produced by John Langley, Elie Cohn and Stephen Chao.

"These properties cross several generations and have tremendous built-in awareness," said Rothman. "You'd be amazed the people attracted by them, people like Bryan Singer, who was offered every film after 'Usual Suspects,' but found a message about alienation in 'X-Men' that he responded to. The underlying weighty themes set in a pop context makes these unique, and like gold."

Universal landed "Jumanji" director Joe Johnston and screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh for "The Incredible Hulk" with producer Gale Anne Hurd. U's also got J.D. Zeik scripting "Luke Cage" for John Singleton and producer Ed Pressman.

New Line, already in production with the Wesley Snipes starrer "Blade: Vampire Hunter," is out to directors on the David Goyer-scripted "Venom." Columbia has Jeff Welch scripting "Dr. Strange," with Brillstein-Grey producing.

Though still entangled in a web of litigation, "Spider-Man" has James Cameron attached. The property passed from Carolco to MGM, with that studio possibly getting its best chance for a franchise since James Bond.

Several other projects are moving forward without studios after deals languished. For instance, Marvel's working with "Blade" star Snipes and his production company Amen-Ra on "Black Panther," whom Snipes will play.

Marvel's working with event pic producers Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn of Cloud Nine on "Captain America," setting Larry Wilson ("The Addams Family") and Les Bohem ("Dante's Peak") to script it.

"Hulk" scribe Hensleigh is also attached with producer Gale Anne Hurd to "Ghost Rider," and Marvel's looking for homes for other franchises like Thor and the Punisher.

There are 1,300 characters in the Marvel library, said sources, and they're not all superheroes.

In fact, one of the most promising Marvel development projects resides at DreamWorks and could possibly be the next in production if they find the right director. It's "Mort the Dead Teenager," a film scripted by John Payson and the comic's creator, Larry Hama. Producers Gabrielle Kelly and Zachary Feuer spent five years pushing the film toward production.

Hama, who draws Wolverine and G.I. Joe, did Mort as a four-part comic series, and gave an early look to Kelly.

In the series, Mort is an average Long Island teenager until he's flattened by a LIRR train in a drag race. Beheaded, among other things, he's met by Teen Death, the son of the grim reaper. Mort's consigned to haunt his family and friends.

Though his head falls off at inopportune moments, he hasn't lost his teen angst.

"We really feel this little comic will help contribute to the resurgence of Marvel," said Feuer, "even though the company almost didn't realize it owned the comic."


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