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New 'Green Hornet' has no buzz. Are minor league superheroes striking out?

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This conventional wisdom is true up to a point, says comic book expert and aficionado Stephen Fishler of New York’s Metropolis Collectibles, one of the nation’s top comic book auction firms. There are mainstream reviews and then there is word-of-mouth, he says. “If a movie is bad, that word will get out, and it will not do well.” While fans of top-tier superheroes will often turn out for even a middling film, the failure of the 2006 "Superman" reboot proves that a bad vehicle can ground even the biggest guys.

So when it comes to the lesser-known figures that have a far smaller built-in fan base, says Mr. Fishler, “it’s more important than ever that the movie actually be good.” That means the same criteria any moviegoer might have: “good visuals, good storyline, and great characters.”

Heroes who have audiences wondering “who is this masked man?” have an uphill battle for name recognition in a crowded entertainment landscape. On the other hand, a minor character allows writers and directors more license for creativity.

“ 'Superman' is such an icon that his narrative actions tend to be somewhat limited (Truth, Justice, American Way),” e-mails Brad Ricca, SAGES fellow at Case Western Reserve University and author of the upcoming book, “Super Boys.” But the truly obscure figures often cover more interesting ground, he observes, such as drug addiction, homelessness, and race.

At the same time, Mr. Ricca notes, filmmakers can reach only so far down the action-figure food chain, and it comes down to just how good the character is. Even if there are multiple websites and fan clubs for some obscure '70s Marvel character like ROM Spaceknight, he says, “there's a reason those characters don't have comic books anymore.”

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