Animated superheroes burst from the shadow of live-action

After more than 20 years, DC Comics' Watchmen will make the quantum leap from comic book page to live-action film with its release this Friday. If hype and anticipation translate to even a fraction of box office success, Watchmen will affirm the popularity of superheroes — and even R-rated antiheroes — as Hollywood's saviors. The blockbuster could join the ranks of such record-breakers as the Spider-Man trilogy and the Oscar-winning The Dark Knight.

Superhero movies make the transition from ink and paper to celluloid the hard way, however. Saving the world and defeating flamboyant evildoers is the least of it. Simply making an exciting, convincing superhero movie that doesn't insult an audience's intelligence practically demands a miracle. Cinematic, super-powered derring-do requires massively expensive special effects, along with the challenge of casting flesh-and-blood actors to play literally two-dimensional, archetypal roles with impossible physiques and ridiculous costumes.

For every hit like The Dark Knight, there's at least one costly flop: Take the nipple-costumed Batman & Robin or Halle Berry's embarrassing Catwoman. Even with the successes, audiences face flaws like the obvious CGI-rendered Spider-Man and Hulk in their first movies, or unfortunate choices such as Ian McKellen's dumb-looking Magneto helmet in the X-Men films.

Animation holds out an easier approach. It goes with comic book stories as comfortably as a cape and cowl. The best cartoon features and TV series can do an end run around the real world's limitations to offer an unlimited canvas that emulates iconic comic book art while putting exciting designs into motion. The right voice performances can even convey emotional heft without hanging a tights-wearing movie star from wires.

Cartoon crusaders are nothing new. Max Fleischer's Oscar-nominated "Superman" cartoons first appeared in 1941, merely three years after the Man of Steel (arguably the first superhero) made his comic book debut. Just as live-action comic book movies gradually evolved over decades from joke status to serious consideration – from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Christian Bale – so has superheroic animation become increasingly sophisticated. They're still primarily marginal works produced for cable or DVD, but new projects, such as the straight-to-DVD Wonder Woman animated film released March 3, suggest that animated heroes are ready to make the leap to the big time.

Wonder Woman has spent nearly seven decades battering at a glass ceiling, despite her golden lasso and bullet-proof bracelets. Created in 1941, she's probably DC Comics' third most famous character behind Superman and Batman – the only three to have been in print (more or less) continuously since their debuts before World War II. She's pop culture's most famous female superhero, yet has never enjoyed a big-screen treatment, while Superman and Batman have seen multiple franchises. The mid-1970s Lynda Carter TV series offers Wonder Woman's greatest claim to non-comic book fame.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" screenwriter Joss Whedon, who worked on a Wonder Woman script in the early 2000s, suggested that DC characters contain an innate hurdle, having been created to be more like pulpy gods than identifiable people. Whedon told Maxim magazine, "DC's characters, like Wonder Woman and Superman and Green Lantern, were all very much removed from humanity. Batman was the only character they had who was so rooted in pain, that had that same gift that the Marvel characters had, which was that gift of humanity that we can relate to."

Wonder Woman's origin makes her nearly as alien as Superman, but instead of being from another planet, she was raised on a magical island steeped in Greek mythology. In bringing Wonder Woman to life, writers must strike a balancing act between a Gloria Steinem-style feminist and a male fantasy figure with BDSM associations. And who can you cast as Wonder Woman who looks the part while conveying the sense of presence? A film would need a combination of gold-medal Olympian, supermodel and Shakespearean tragedian.

As a charter member of the 1970s "Super Friends," the cartoon Wonder Woman had no trouble meeting the role's physical requirements. More recently, the Cartoon Network's "Justice League" series and the DC Universe Original Animated Movies line have given the character complex shadings. In last year's Cold War-era DVD feature Justice League: The New Frontier, Wonder Woman (voiced by Lucy Lawless of "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Battlestar Galactica") emerged as the equivalent of the merciless Furies of legend. In one scene, she rescues women prisoners in 1950s Indochina, and allows them to exact horrific revenge on male captors.

DC's and Marvels' straight-to-DVD movies take advantage of PG-13 ratings to attract older audiences, occasionally touching on mature themes and sometimes simply indulging in gratuitous violence. DC's new Wonder Woman film from producer Bruce Timm and director Lauren Montgomery begins with a lavish, bloody prologue like the opening battle from The Fellowship of the Ring. The all-female Amazon warriors, led by Queen Hippolyta (Virginia Madsen), overthrow their masculine oppressors, including Ares, the God of War (voiced by Alfred Molina, who played Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2). The Amazons strip Ares of his supernatural powers and retire to the mystic island of Themyscira, where Hippolyta creates an infant daughter out of sand.

As a young woman (voiced by "Felicity's" Keri Russell), Diana wants to leave the island to discover the so-called "man's world." She gets her chance with the unexpected crash-landing of fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion of "Firefly"). Despite his nickname of Zipper, and his uncouth first impression, Steve proves not so much an irredeemable, male chauvinist pig as an old-fashioned, flirtatious wolf. When Ares escapes his prison, Diana dons the trademark Wonder Woman one-piece and departs to return Steve to America and stop Ares from waging war on humankind.

Wonder Woman's script features some graceless dialogue, but has fun tweaking male-female dynamics between action scenes. Almost immediately after landing in New York in her invisible jet, Wonder Woman teaches a sad little girl how to sword fight with the boys, and sends her off with a merry "Unleash hell!" Over tequila shots, Steve observes that even immortal warrior women like Hippolyta find bad boys more attractive, and invariably choose the God of War over, say, the God of Dependability.

Montgomery crafts some eye-catching action scenes. In an aerial dogfight, a chunk of debris hits Steve's cockpit (no pun intended), while a jungle chase scene has a hand-held camera effect. The big monster fights evoke the classic movie creatures of Ray Harryhausen, and when fighting one serpent-headed brute, Wonder Woman cuts off his snakes. (Paging Dr. Freud... .) The film builds to a dizzying battle scene on the Washington mall, with skirmishes atop the White House and in front of the Vietnam Memorial.

Montgomery rose through the ranks of Timm's previous cartoon series and had little prior attachment to comic books. Her experience suggests that the best animated series can stand on their own, without requiring fond comic book memories as props. "It was more sophisticated storytelling and that drew me to the 'Superman' and 'Justice League' series, and then I ended up working on 'Justice League.' So most of my experience with superheroes are through animation, not actually through the comic books themselves."

Straight-to-DVD animated films tend to demonstrate limited budgets and running times, with most clocking in around 75 minutes. Last year's Justice League: The New Frontier and anime-style anthology film Batman: Gotham Knight revealed impressive, ambitious narratives that could've used longer treatments. Wonder Woman's stranger-in-a-sexist-land scenes in New York feel like they're only just warming up before they move onto globe-trotting adventures. More time and tweaking could have improved the blah facial animation, and added additional fine details to some of the sketchy designs of Themyscira.

So far, animated superhero DVDs remain in the shadows of motion pictures. Frequently they come across as trial balloons for potential feature films, or serve as extensions of the big-screen brand. Marvel Comics' Hulk Vs., released in January, featured two self-contained mini-movies: "Hulk vs. Wolverine," to prime the pump for this summer's X-Men Origins: Wolverine feature with Hugh Jackman; and "Hulk vs. Thor," as a way to take the Norse thunder god out for a spin in anticipation of Kenneth Branagh's Thor project planned for 2010. "Hulk vs. Wolverine" featured entertaining fight scenes that justified the PG-13 bloodbath, but generally Marvel's animated films pale in comparison to DVDs.

Two animated DVDs accompany Watchmen's release this month. Watchmen Motion Comics, released March 3, films the original graphic novel panels in a loosely animated format. The more exciting venture will be Tales of the Black Freighter, which features the voice of Gerard Butler in a grim, grisly pirate tale (originally a story within the Watchmen's original narrative) that should have echoes of 1950s horror comics like Tales from the Crypt.

Despite the many virtues of animated hero films, examples of ones ready for theatrical release prove elusive. In 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a spin-off of Timm's "Batman: The Animated Series" was rushed into theaters, where it earned positive reviews but practically no money. Pixar's The Incredibles, however, could be the exception that proves the rule. A thrilling, funny and thoughtful treatment of a superpowered family, The Incredibles is the second most popular of Pixar's blockbuster films, while costing roughly a third of the budget of Spider-Man 3. The Incredibles offered a metaphorical treatment of family crises while still incorporating whiz-bang action scenes with giant robots.

At a time when Hollywood appears stymied by the challenges of boosting the narrative potential of classic heroes like Wonder Woman, some full-fledged, lavish computer-animated treatments could come in the nick of time. Animation feels like the only way to do justice to the iconic, pop-art designs of genius artists such as Fantastic Four illustrator Jack Kirby or the Spirit creator Will Eisner. Otherworldly locations like Aquaman's Atlantis seem unreachable by real-world means, but only as far as a drafting table or a computer keyboard for an artist. Animation offers the genre its best chance for takeoff, even though it may require more than a single bound.

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