They're everywhere. Blue, green or orange skinned, clad in Lycra, leather or nothing at all, superheroes have taken over America's multiplexes. The lords of Hollywood have evidently concluded that we can't get enough of the costumed freaks -- and if the surprisingly strong opening of "Fantastic Four" is any indication, they may be right. But if we're destined to spend the next several years watching movies about mutants, musclemen and assorted other misfits, it'd be nice if those movies were good. To improve the odds, here are a fistful of easy rules for making a superhero movie that doesn't suck.
1. Find the right director.
Good candidates will be on the young side and have either a history of interest in the genre ("Spider-Man's" Sam Raimi (pictured at left), "Hellboy's" Guillermo del Toro) or a background making diabolically clever neo-noirs ("X-Men's" Bryan Singer, "Batman Begins'" Christopher Nolan). To be avoided are directors with little or no relevant expertise ("Fantastic Four's" Tim Story), and those in any way connected with "St. Elmo's Fire" ("Batman Forever's" Joel Schumacher) or France ("Catwoman's" Pitof). Meanwhile, famous auteurs ("Batman's" Tim Burton, "Hulk's" Ang Lee) are a bit of a crap shoot: They'll do their own thing, regardless of whether it's called for. Don't believe the director makes that much difference? Wait until next year, when Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") gets his hands on the "X-Men" franchise.
2. Find the right stars.
It's hard to imagine anyone better embodying the "hero in all of us" than "Spider-Man's" Tobey McGuire. "Hellboy" could have been written with Ron Perlman in mind. And Christian Bale has an air of regal entitlement befitting billionaire Bruce Wayne and a strong jaw (finally!) befitting Batman. Moreover, any picture, superpowered or not, that has Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as nemeses is likely to be good, particularly if it can throw in a dose of Aussie masculinity from Hugh Jackman. Countryman Eric Bana, by contrast, didn't much register in "Hulk." We should have been so lucky with Jessica Alba, whose embarrassing performance as Invisible Woman in "Fantastic Four" seemed mostly an excuse to have her shuck her clothes like Claude Rains' invisible man. (Parents, fret not: You can't see anything.) And then there's "Daredevil's" Ben Affleck: A strong jaw is a good thing for a masked crusader, but too much is still too much; as he swung through the city, one half-feared he'd turn his head abruptly and level an apartment building.
3. Ground the characters in tragedy.
It's no coincidence that two classic story lines have dominated the cape-and-tights genre since the early days of pen and ink: the hero who loses his parents or surrogate parents (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil), and the one who lives as an outcast from society (the Hulk, Hellboy, the X-Men). There's a reason that the only sympathetic figure in "Fantastic Four" is that unhappy pile of rubble, the Thing (played, as far as I can tell, without makeup by Michael Chiklis of "The Shield"). We non-supers are a jealous bunch and like our betters to have the decency at least to be miserable. Nothing is likely to get on our nerves more quickly than a guy like the Human Torch, who goes around boasting about how "cool" it is to have superpowers.
4. Stay away from supergroups.
Here the X-Men prove the exception to the rule (at least so far), in part thanks to their strenuous adherence to rule No. 3. The problem here is one of simple arithmetic. One fellow who can fly or shoot laser beams out of his eyes has a certain amount of silliness to overcome; throw in a superpowered villain, and that silliness is squared. Start adding a squadron of super friends, and the loss of seriousness becomes a mathematical certainty. If "Fantastic Four" is not persuasive enough on this point, have another look at the costumed congestion of "Batman & Robin," which Batman, Robin, Batgirl, Poison Ivy, and Mr. Freeze quickly turn into a camp fest.
5. Don't stray too far from the originals.
Marvel Comics' Stan Lee and the various brains behind DC Comics knew what they were doing, or we wouldn't still be plundering their oeuvres several decades later. Whereas the X-Men and Spiderman movies have benefited enormously from staying mostly true to their roots, other movies' deviations have tended to be ill-advised. Ang Lee's addition of an Oedipal drama to his "Hulk" bogged down the proceedings considerably. And what in the world were "Fantastic Four's" creators thinking when they put Victor Von Doom up in the cosmic ray storm with the soon-to-be-super quartet? In the comics, Dr. Doom was a wonderful villain full of grandeur and pride, a gypsy orphan who through mastery of science and the occult grew up to be the Vlad-like ruler of his Central European nation. In the movie, he's been updated to an off-the-rack sneering corporate baddie with a severe skin disorder. Scary? Perhaps, but in the wrong way altogether.