Up, Up and Away!

Just when you thought the “Batman” franchise had left superhero movies creatively bankrupt, caped crusaders and masked villains are invading Hollywood once again.

This summer’s release of “X-Men” promises to be the first in a long list of big-budget comic book adaptations. Many of these were on the back burner for several years but have been making headlines in recent weeks, ever since it was announced that Sam Raimi will likely be the director of Sony’s long-awaited “Spider-Man” movie.

“The Greatest American Hero” The latest, and perhaps most bizarre, project announced is a big-screen version of “The Greatest American Hero,” the early 1980s TV show that starred William Katt as bumbling superguy Ralph Hinkley (the character’s surname was changed to “Hanley” after John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Reagan). Space aliens give Hinkley a superhero suit and an instruction manual, but he loses the manual and must learn how to harness the powers of the suit on his own, with zany, madcap results. The show, which also starred Connie Sellecca as Katt‘s girlfriend and Robert Culp as his boss, is probably best remembered for its scenes of Katt learning how to fly and for its zippy theme song. According to Daily Variety, Touchstone Pictures has bought the rights to make a film about the knight-errant man in red tights and has hired two screenwriters to put the project in motion. No word yet on whether the “hero” will turn in those tights for 1990s-style body armor a la Batman.

While the “Greatest American Hero” news came from out of the blue, other super-duper movies have been eagerly awaited by comic geeks, studio licensing executives and toy manufacturers for most of the 1990s. Finally, just last week, Variety reported that the “Fantastic Four” movie, with its long and tangled history, might finally get off the ground with director Roger Donaldson (“Dante’s Peak”) at the controls. It’s a merchandiser’s dream — four superheroes, plus the villains! — and it’s been in the works since 1994, when Marvel Comics made legal maneuvers to prevent director Oley Sassone from releasing his $2 million feature film version of the classic comic.

It’s not that Sassone’s version wasn’t licensed by Marvel, but the comics publisher had received a bigger, better offer from producer-director Chris Columbus ( “Bicentennial Man“) to do a first-class job; thus, the cheap quickie was never released and has been relegated to grainy bootleg videotapes sold on the underground. Now Mr. Fantastic, The Thing, the Invisible Girl and Human Torch, not to mention their nemesis Dr. Doom will probably command a $100 million budget if they ever make it to the screen.

The “Fantastic Four” news comes after word that several other Marvel properties are also moving from the back burner to the front. Last week, the trades reported that Columbia Pictures is close to hiring director Mark Steven Johnson ( “Simon Birch“) to write and direct “Daredevil,” the story of a blind criminal defense attorney by day who dresses up like a demon by night and stalks the city for criminals using his radar-like, radioactivity-enhanced senses to detect danger and evil-doers. Then there’s “Dr. Strange,” which writer-director Chuck Russell ( “Eraser”) has recently been hired (also by Columbia) to develop. There’s no speculation yet as to who’ll play the young, crime-fighting psychiatrist Stephen Strange, who was known to utter strange incantations such as “By the hoary host of Hoggoth.”

While Marvel Comics has the lion’s share of superhero movies in the works (studios are also working on adaptations of “The Silver Surfer” and “The Incredible Hulk,” although those two projects have been stuck in development hell for some time), rival publisher DC Comics isn’t out of the picture, not by a long shot.

Apparently not even George Clooney and Joel Schumacher could succeed in killing Warner Bros.’ “Batman” franchise. The studio is reportedly talking to “Pi” director Darren Aronofsky about making “Batman 5,” and the studio’s highly anticipated “Superman Reborn,” once known as “Superman Forever,” is said to be gearing up again now after being shelved two years ago when Tim Burton walked away (or was fired, depending on what you believe).

Warners is said to be pleased with the new “Superman” screenplay by Bill Wisher, and the candidate for Most Unlikely to Direct is … Oliver Stone. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Stone is the No. 1 candidate for the job, and the studio wants to take a nontraditional approach to America’s most traditional superhero, “sans the tights and more ‘Matrix‘ like.” Did Lex Luthor kill President Kennedy? Stay tuned.