A cache of characters

Marvel Studios plans animated TV spin-offs of 20 superhero theatrical films

Developing a good TV show is hard to do, but how can you fail with superheroes running the show? Marvel Studios, the production company behind last summer's smash film The X-Men and summer 2002's big buzz Spiderman, is hoping to power its way through a slew of TV projects with, well, superhuman strength.

After seeing The WB snatch up its series, X-Men Evolution, last fall, Marvel Studios (a subsidiary of comics publisher Marvel Entertainment Group) is aiming to push through similar animated spin-offs for its nearly 20 films in development.

That certainly sounds like a job for a superhero, but Marvel Studios has about 4,600 comic-book-based characters from which to choose for future story lines and plans to launch one TV animated tie-in per film.

Among those coming soon are The Hulk, to be directed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ang Lee; and 20th Century Fox's The Fantastic Four
and The Iron Fist, starring Ray Park (Star Wars' Darth Maul).

First on deck, set for fall 2002, is a new Spiderman animated series. Spiderman film distributor Columbia TriStar also is on board as a producer for the show. Although no firm deals have been struck-The WB, Fox, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network are current targets-"we know it will air," says Rick Ungar, president of Marvel characters group. "There is no shortage of people interested in the series."

Crafting a live-action TV companion to upcoming Marvel films might work out fine, "but the TV version will end up being a low-budget version of what's on the big screen. So there's no reason to do it," insists Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad, adding that animation can be punched up just as well without investing in a lot in special effects.

Yet Marvel is also readying live-action syndicated series for 2002, to be based on comic properties not in its film pipeline. The company is looking for a suitable follow-up to its 2001 hour, Tribune Entertainment-distributed Mutant X.

Daughters of the Dragon, chronicling three sisters/agents, and Black Cat, about a world-renowned female cat burglar, are considered Marvel's best shots for next year. Granted, Daughters and Black Cat don't seem as surefire as the more popular X-Men, but "it's about finding great stories," Arad asserts. "It's not about whether someone knows the name."

He also points out that the "comic-book-geek community is highly aware." Beyond the obvious worship for uber-hero Spiderman
and the hundreds of Web sites depicting lesser-known Iron Fist, he maintains that comic-book fans can build "a groundswell" for lower-profile characters "that is startling."

For example, under-the-radar 1998 Marvel film Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, opened at $17 million, which is "astonishing," says Arad. "Think about it: Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt open at $20 million," he comments on The Mexican, and DreamWorks is "spending a fortune promoting that movie. So it gives you an idea about the power of the comics community."

Tribune seems happy to consider other Marvel series, since it has positioned Mutant X, about a group of genetically engineered humans, as its marquee action-hour project for next fall.

"There's no reason this couldn't be the first of a couple of projects," says Tribune Entertainment chief Dick Askin. Mutant X
has yet to debut, so "it's a little too early to tell," he admits, "but we're really optimistic about our relationship with Marvel."