When rumors circulated earlier this summer that Warner Bros. had cast Jack Black as the lead in its adaptation of the DC comic ''Green Lantern,'' superhero fans shared a collective groan: Here they go again. For the past decade, comic-book devotees have watched in horror as Warner Bros. took iconic content from sister company DC and either mishandled it (''Batman & Robin,'' ''Catwoman''), or threatened to mishandle it (Brett Ratner directing ''Superman''? Sandra Bullock as ''Wonder Woman''?). Dressing the ''School of Rock'' wild card in the cosmic policeman's green tights seemed like a one-way ticket to campville -- and business as usual for the studio.
But fret not, true believers! Warner Bros. and Black say it's all rumor: ''I took a meeting with someone who has the rights, but there's no [''Green Lantern''] script,'' the actor tells EW. ''I'd be interested if there was a really good writer attached, but it's far from a [done deal].'' And Black's sensible caution may not be the only reason for comic-book fans to hope things are looking up on the DC -- Warner Bros. front.
There is a blueprint for doing this right. Marvel Comics has had one success after another with their X-Men and Spider-Man franchises. Marvel, beholden to no single company, can shop its properties all over town in search of the right partner. Just as important, it has one point man who can ensure that adaptations go smoothly: Marvel chairman and CEO Avi Arad, who gets high marks for his savvy salesmanship and passionate involvement. ''With properties like this, you've got to have somebody in between the filmmaker and the studio whose purpose is to protect the brand,'' says producer Gary Foster (''Daredevil,'' ''Elektra'').
DC, on the other hand, has an unofficial first-refusal deal with Warner Bros. (like EW, both WB and DC are owned by Time Warner). And for years no one person was overseeing the page-to-screen process. But that changed last December, when Gregory Noveck was hired as senior VP of creative affairs, the key studio liaison. ''My job is to communicate what is strong and innovative about these properties,'' Noveck says. ''We'll never have a perfect batting average, but our hearts will be in the right place.'' Industry comic lovers see the hire as a good sign. Says screenwriter David S. Goyer (''Blade: Trinity,'' ''Batman Begins''), ''Greg's a smart guy, and he gets it.''
Challenge No. 1: bringing superheroes down to earth. Christopher Reeve's slightly square Superman worked in 1978, but today audiences want vulnerability, flaws, and a little darkness in their characters. ''The key to our success is that we make movies that are emotional and human,'' says Arad. In other words, Spidey might sling down a block in red spandex, but at the end of the day, he's just a heartbroken teen. The difficulty of translating goddess ''Wonder Woman'' or a beyond-''Smallville'' Superman into accessible figures is partly responsible for stalling both projects, say sources inside Warner Bros.
But after a decade of developmental Kryptonite, ''Superman'' is on track, with director Bryan Singer, whose humane treatment of the X-Men bodes well for a more complex Clark Kent. February 2005's ''Constantine'' (adapted from ''Hellblazer'') stars Keanu Reeves as a flawed detective with a rich past; and by focusing on the emotionally scarred Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Christopher Nolan's ''Batman Begins'' (summer 2005) could restore a tortured respectability to the Caped Crusader.
''It's taken us a long time to find the right creative group for each project, who can deliver the most distinctive, innovative movie,'' says Warner Bros. Pictures president of production Jeff Robinov. ''You can't rush that.'' Not even if you're faster than a speeding bullet.