SAN DIEGO — Jackie Earle Haley steps inside of the "Night Owl's" spaceship, walking gingerly past the pilot's seats toward the control panel, touching the blinking gauges and dials.
"It's still a little hard to believe," the balding, bespectacled actor says, "that I'm playing a superhero."
But if this year's Comic-Con convention, which wrapped up Sunday, has demonstrated anything, it's that comic-book and superhero movies are not what they used to be.
If anything, they're the opposite.
Gone are the lantern-jawed heroes whose raison d'être was to save mankind from villains threatening to wipe out the populace.
Instead, the anti-hero rules. He drinks heavily. He has problems performing in bed. He's as likely to kill an innocent as an evildoer. Often, he doesn't care that much for people.
And he's getting hired by the truckloads by Hollywood. After a summer that has seen antithetical superheroes rack up nearly $1 billion, studios can't get enough crime-fighter movies into production, even ones with some unlikely protagonists.
There are more than 42 comic-book and superhero movies in production, and the heroes range from the obvious (Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire reprising their roles as Iron Man and Spider-Man) to the head-scratching (Seth Rogen as the Green Hornet?).
Even Haley, who returned to big-screen prominence as a pederast in "Little Children", concedes he never saw himself as the crusading type.
"When I first started acting, the last thing I thought of was being a superhero," he says as he walks through the spaceship used in Watchmen, the ultimate anti-hero film, due March 6. The 9,000-pound spaceship was rolled onto the floor of the convention and became the most popular display of the five-day pop-culture festival.
"I'm probably the last guy you'd think of playing a superhero," Haley says, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans, some of them dressed as his character, the shadowy hero Rorschach. "I'm no Superman."
Superman seems too earnest
Of course, as this summer and this comic-book convention have unfolded, it has become clear that no one is Superman anymore. Perhaps, says "Watchmen" director Zack Snyder, Superman is gone for good.
"They asked me to direct a "Superman movie", and I said no," Snyder says. "He's a tricky one nowadays, isn't he? He's the king daddy of all comic-book heroes, but I'm just not sure how you sell that kind of earnestness to a sophisticated audience anymore."
So studios are selling everything else, including bitter themes and obscure heroes.
Consider the summer slate. Few read the comic book "Wanted", but Universal turned the violent, R-rated adaptation of the assassins' story into a $100 million blockbuster. "The Dark Knight" bordered on R-rated violence and became the biggest opener of all time. "Iron Man" cast a former drug abuser in the lead role and received praise from all corners.
"We're casting people not for their names but for their acting ability, even if they're not the obvious choice," says Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. "Sometimes, the least obvious is the best choice."
Hancock: Scraping bottom?
More obscurity is on the way. Despite a middling box-office performance of $33 million the first time out in 2004, Punisher: War Zone re-emerges Dec. 5, with Ray Stevenson as the killing machine. Ray Park, best known as the villain Darth Maul, gets his own comic-book movie in "Iron Fist", coming later this year. Recognize Gabriel Macht? Bone up, because he's in the title role of "The Spirit", a comic-book adaptation out Christmas Day.
Depending on who's doing the talking, the unlikely heroes are either a sign of comic-book movies' endless well of material — or the running dry of it.
"I love what's happening," says Frank Miller, a longtime comic author and director of "The Spirit", who has tried for years to get less mainstream comics onto the big screen. "It's about time our day has come. It just takes studios a while to see what kind of true art lies in comic books."
Kevin Smith, who owns comic-book stores, writes his own comics and weaves comic-book elements into his films, says that the well is endless, at least for now.
"It took Westerns about 30 years to run dry," he says. "I'd say we have at least that long, because there are so many stories and mythologies to choose from. And, unlike Westerns, they say something about modern-day life."
But John Moore, director of the video-game adaptation Max Payne, wonders if superhero films are at the beginning — and end — of their golden age.
"Look at "Hancock"," he says of the breezy summer hit with Will Smith as a drunken superhero tired of saving mankind. "You've got a hero whose power is there, but his heart isn't into it. That's not a superhero movie. I think it's clear we're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel."
Regardless, the public appetite appears to be there now. Comic-Con's attendance was estimated at 130,000, the largest on record.
"I don't know how long this will last, but I think comic-book movies are doing what a lot of other movies have been afraid to do," Haley says. "Get dark. Make outcasts your heroes. Take a critical look at the state of the world we live in."
No film does that like "Watchmen", based on the graphic novel of the mid-1980s. It examines a band of crime fighters with real-world problems, disdain for the public and issues with unbridled power.
"I don't know if we're going to deconstruct the entire superhero mythology," director Snyder says. "But we're going to kick it in the stomach."
Which seems to fit everyday fans just fine.
"Keep them coming," says Stephanie Otter, 36, a Pittsburgh native and comic-book fan wearing a "Little Miss Bossy" T-shirt. "I'm tired of superheroes just for the guys. I want something different than Iron Man or Spider-Man."
Women jump into the fray
Otter represents another shift in the comic-book movie universe: an influx of women. Over the years, female attendance at Comic-Con has grown, this year reaching a record of nearly 40%, perhaps reflecting increasing involvement of women in the filmmaking.
"It was getting depressing," says Rose McGowan, who will play the title comic-book vixen in "Red Sonja", due in 2010. "I was getting scripts to play the straight man to the straight man. But lately, we're seeing more scripts that allow us to kick (butt). Comic books have always been good about it, and now movies seem to be catching on."
Deborah Del Prete, producer of Frank Miller's "Spirit", has been coming to Comic-Con since she was 8 years old. Usually, she was asked if she was looking for Wonder Woman comics.
"Now they ask me what I'm working on," she says. "We're seeing a partnership in making these movies we never saw before. I say it's about time people recognize women enjoy comics and comic-book movies as much as any other fan."
Mila Kunis, who plays an assassin in the video game adaptation Max Payne, says Hollywood is finally mirroring the times.
"If you ask me, they're a little slow in catching up with the rest of the world," she says. "I'm really glad for movies like "Wanted" and "Underworld", because it's casting us as mainstream heroes.
"But come on. It wasn't that long ago when we thought a woman was going to be the Democratic nominee for president. We should have been at this place a long time ago."