Animated superheroes burst from shadows of live-action films

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.