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."
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