It's hard to imagine Virginia Woolf prowling the mean streets of Gotham City. But Nicole Kidman, Oscar-nominated for her fake-beaked turn in ''The Hours,'' is the latest respectable thespian to consider a superhero role: She's been offered the lead in ''Catwoman.'' Meanwhile, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are starring in the nation's No. 1 movie, ''Daredevil,'' and director Christopher Nolan (''Memento'') has named Guy Pearce as the top prospect for his ''Batman'' film.
So why are so many top-notch stars deciding that skintight spandex is a good fit? Blame ''Spider-Man'''s $403 million take. ''It can be an actor's attempt at a commercial franchise,'' says ''X-Men'' and ''X2'' casting director Roger Mussenden. ''You make your gazillion bucks and then you can go off and do the artsy-fartsy things that you really enjoy.'' Another veteran casting director, Billy Hopkins, agrees: ''Playing Catwoman won't hurt Nicole Kidman, and if it's a big hit, it'll just make her next paycheck that much bigger.''
Yet such A-listers as Josh Hartnett and Jude Law have been reluctant to bring the comics to life, and for good reason. (Both men have so far resisted Brett Ratner's attempts to recruit them for ''Superman.'') ''Look at what 'Superman' did to Christopher Reeve,'' says Mussenden. ''That was who he WAS. He never escaped that.'' Plus, Ratner and Warner Bros. are said to be demanding a three-picture commitment, which means a young actor could spend a good chunk of his prime years flying around Metropolis. ''They don't want to be tied down forever,'' says Hopkins. For Hartnett, the reason is even simpler: 'The superhero stuff was never really my thing. I've turned down every superhero I've been offered.''
Perhaps that's why another name floated for the Superman role is far less familiar: Victor Webster, who appears on the little-noted syndicated TV show ''Mutant X.'' ''It's great if you can find a Hugh Jackman,'' says Mussenden, who made a star out of the then-unknown Aussie actor by casting him as ''X-Men'''s Wolverine. ''And that may be where they have to go.''
Big bucks and multiple-picture deals aside, some actors admit they find artistic fulfillment in comic book characters. ''I think that the material can be really rich,'' says Willem Dafoe, who cackled his way through '"Spider-Man'' as the Green Goblin. ''The form is beautiful because, generally, naturalism doesn't tap into the magic of movies. [With comic books] you get these characters that are elevated, but they're still accessible. You can see yourself and your concerns in them.''
But for some rising stars, it would be an honor just to be asked. ''I would love to be a superhero -- who wouldn't?'' says Gabrielle Union (''Bring It On''), who's already moving toward action stardom in ''Cradle 2 the Grave'' and this summer's ''Bad Boys II.'' But Union doesn't think she'll get to play her favorite hero anytime soon. ''America's just not ready for a black Wonder Woman,'' she says.