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Caught in the web 'Spider-Man 3' is poised to become the latest Hollywood hit spawned by a comic book

Sunday's balmy 70 degree temperatures might have made it feel like the first day of spring had finally arrived, but it was summer that was on the minds of the Biniewski family.

Enjoying the warm weather on the deck outside of their Orchard Park home, the Biniewskis were mapping out summer plans. In May, it will be "Spider-Man 3"; June, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer"; and July, "Transformers."

"The kids keep saying May 4, May 4, May 4. We can't stop talking about it," Jeff Biniewski says about next Friday's release of "Spider-Man 3."

Watching these big-screen adaptations of their favorite comic book heroes is a family affair for the Biniewski clan -- Jeff and Marcella, along with their children Matthew, 5; Jack, 10; Emily, 14; and Rebecca, 16. Jeff still has the comic books he collected as a kid and today shares that passion with his children as they watch Spider-Man and other superheroes brought to life in cartoons, videos and big-screen movie adaptations.

"We like the fantasy, the superheroes and their superpowers," he says. "My kids ask me a lot of questions, and we go through the comic books together. I get to share everything with them from when I was a kid."

>Doing big business

If numbers are any indication, there are many other families out there like the Biniewskis. Once considered merely child's play, comic books have expanded into a multimillion-dollar industry that has been transformed through expansion to television, the big screen and home video.

"Smallville" has been a steady hit on the former WB and now CW network; the comic-inspired "Heroes," featuring ordinary people with extraordinary abilities, has given NBC a supersized hit by averaging 14.8 million viewers a week. On the big screen, well, those numbers are astronomical. "Spider-Man 2" earned an astonishing $373 million at the box office; "Batman Begins," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Superman Returns" topped $200 million each. None of these figures include the millions more earned from home video.

Then there's the case of the unexpected hit "300." Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the retelling of the ancient story of the battle of Thermopylae shocked the movie industry by racking up more than $200 million in its first month. That makes "300" the top movie in 2007 -- for now. Expect that number to be obliterated when "Spider-Man 3" swings into theaters next Friday.

Oh, and those paper comic books? They hold their own. Selling for an average price of $3.25, the 13.3 million comic books sold in the first two months of 2007 generated $41.7 million in sales, a 20 percent increase over last year, according to the Comics Buyer's Guide. On May 5, the sixth annual "Free Comic Book Day" takes place as comic book stores across the country literally hand out free comic books. Last year, nearly 2 million comic books were given away. "The Amazing Spider-Man" is among the 44 titles available this year.

These are all pretty big numbers for something that you can carry in the palm of your hand.

>Comic evolution

"Comic books, for roughly half a century, have been our epic poems," says Pierluigi Cothran, a Buffalo native who is now a writer's assistant on "Heroes." "They keep growing and expanding with each new telling to the point where an entire alternate world has been created in 2D -- readily accessible to anyone who wants to be a part of them. The movies of these comics are just the next step in their evolution.

"There's a wonder and awe that comes along with seeing someone do extraordinary things -- these movies harness the audiences' desire for those very subconscious-based thoughts and project them 100 feet in front of them," he continues. "I think recent comic book movie adaptations capture the sense and wonder of seeing modern heroes in all their spectacle and wonder. The movies are made with such grandeur that they have an epic appeal that taps into some primal urge for the audience."

Jim Littler, the Webmaster for ComicBookMovie.com agrees.

"I think that everyone has an innate sense that they can be 'better' than what they are -- that there is something super or unique about them waiting to come out and wow the world. Comics and comic book movies tap into this," he says.

For local fan Kyle Hunter, 19, of Lakeview, the appeal of comic-book adaptations is in seeing them come to life on the big screen.

"They can achieve so much more on film than they can drawing a few panels in a comic book," Hunter says. "To take a movie fight scene and to put every punch and kick into a comic book, the scene is pretty much going to take 20 or more pages."

Hunter, who says he loved "300," lists adaptations of "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" among his favorites. "I feel that the Spider-Man movies follow the comic book more closely then the other comic book movies."

>Keys to success

With large built-in fan bases, comic book adaptations can't help but be successful if they stay true to their source material, Littler says. Take "300" for example.

"All comics geeks knew it would do well, because it was an awesome graphic novel," he says. "All the really successful comic book movies have stayed true to the characters and storylines. The only major change to the 'Spider-Man' story that director Sam Raimi made was to give him genetic web-shooters instead of the mechanical ones of the comics. While even that little change opened up some issues, it was acceptable to the fans, because he did indeed stay true to all the major elements in the original story as written by Stan Lee."

Cothran attributes the success of "Heroes" to the fact that viewers can see themselves in the fictional characters whose "superpowers" or "abilities" are manifested from within each person.

"Each and every one of the 'heroes' on the show can be seen through each audience member," Cothran says. "If you, as a viewer, had these powers, how would your life change? Would it? Would you step up and use them for the betterment of humanity? Or the betterment of yourself? I think it engages the audience on a level so that the amazing doesn't seem so out of the ordinary. It speaks to each and every viewer and taps into a common psyche."

And that glimmer of reality in a fantasy world, along with great modern special effects, is what keeps the Biniewski family returning to watch these adaptations again and again.

"It all seems so life-like," Jeff Biniewski says. "Like it can be a possibility."

-mail: truberto@buffnews.com

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