Batman: Which young hunk should play him?
Forget the Superman curse: It's playing his pal Batman that may be hazardous to an actor's career health. Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer saw their stars fade like a broken Bat-Signal after donning the winged-mammal suit. George Clooney escaped that fate, but only because 1997's ''Batman and Robin'' was so bad that viewers blocked it from their memories.
Despite that disturbing history, at least six young hunks -- Jake Gyllenhaal, Christian Bale, and Joshua Jackson, plus up-and-comers Cillian Murphy, Henry Cavill, and Eion Bailey -- are vying to protect Gotham City in a new Batman movie that Christopher Nolan (''Memento'') will begin shooting early next year. Never content to leave difficult decisions to professionals, we lend the filmmakers our advice on who should fill the cowl:
CHRISTIAN BALE, 28
STRONG CHIN? Yup. Bale's patrician good looks could serve him well as both Batman and his millionaire alter-ego, Bruce Wayne.
DARK SIDE? Most definitely. Bale was terrifying in his chainsaw-toting, flesh-gobbling turn in ''American Psycho.'' The question is whether he can tone it down enough to play the sympathetic Bats (no gnawing on Alfred, now).
READY FOR ACTION? Yes. If the buff Bale could pimp-slap dragons in ''Reign of Fire,'' pummeling a few pesky supervillains shouldn't be a problem.
VERDICT Although Bale has no obvious drawbacks (his well-masked British accent aside), it's hard to get excited about him playing Batman. In the end, the chilliness in his screen persona makes him a better candidate to replace Ah-nuld as Mr. Freeze.
JAKE GYLLENHAAL, 22
STRONG CHIN? Yeah. Despite specializing in troubled-loner roles (''The Good Girl''), Gyllenhaal actually has classically smoldering leading-man looks.
DARK SIDE? Dude, just check out the title of his ''Donnie Darko.''
READY FOR ACTION? Maybe. Though Gyllenhaal's rarely had to beat anybody up on screen, he looks awfully beefed up in recent photos -- Sony was ready to cast him as Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man replacement earlier this year.
VERDICT Gyllenhaal would be a satisfyingly quirky choice -- but it would be best if filming could wait until he's old enough to not be confused with Robin.
JOSHUA JACKSON, 24
STRONG CHIN? Nah. Jackson, best known for his charming turn as Katie Holmes' admirer Pacey on ''Dawson's Creek,'' often looks a little paunchy.
DARK SIDE? Hard to say. Jackson was convincingly tortured as town misfit Pacey. But Batman -- a fellow so tormented by the brutal murder of his parents that he puts on tights and beats up bad guys each night -- has a lot more to deal with than advanced trig and Joey Potter's virginity.
READY FOR ACTION? Unless Jackson's spent every second since he left the Creek in the gym, it's hard to imagine. He did have a hell of a tussle with Dawson in season five, though (hmmm... James Van Der Beek as the Joker?)
VERDICT Ridiculous. But then again, that's what they said about Michael Keaton.
THE LESSER-KNOWN GUYS:
CILLIAN MURPHY, 29
WHO IS HE? The scruffy, zombie-killing lead from this summer's end-of-the-world sleeper hit ''28 Days Later'' will pop up later this year with fellow Irishman Colin Farrell in ''Intermission'' and with Scarlett Johansson in ''Girl With a Pearl Earring.''
VERDICT Murphy can act, but can he rid himself of that thick brogue?
HENRY CAVILL, 20
WHO IS HE? The handsome, pouty-lipped British actor has a relatively thin resume that includes a role in last year's ''The Count of Monte Cristo.''
VERDICT Cavill was also up for the role of Superman -- and since he's a ringer for Christopher Reeve, he'd be better off in that costume.
EION BAILEY, 27
WHO IS HE? He was a soldier in ''Band of Brothers'' and played young Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in ''Almost Famous.'' He also appears opposite Antonio Banderas in HBO's ''And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.''
VERDICT We can't think of anything negative to say -- so maybe he gets the job.