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Animated superheroes burst from the shadow of live-action 

After more than 20 years, DC Comics' Watchmen will make the quantum leap from comic book page to live-action film with its release this Friday. If hype and anticipation translate to even a fraction of box office success, Watchmen will affirm the popularity of superheroes — and even R-rated antiheroes -- as Hollywood's saviors. The blockbuster could join the ranks of such record-breakers as the Spider-Man trilogy and the Oscar-winning The Dark Knight.

Superhero movies make the transition from ink and paper to celluloid the hard way, however. Saving the world and defeating flamboyant evildoers is the least of it. Simply making an exciting, convincing superhero movie that doesn't insult an audience's intelligence practically demands a miracle. Cinematic, super-powered derring-do requires massively expensive special effects, along with the challenge of casting flesh-and-blood actors to play literally two-dimensional, archetypal roles with impossible physiques and ridiculous costumes.

For every hit like The Dark Knight, there's at least one costly flop: Take the nipple-costumed Batman & Robin or Halle Berry's embarrassing Catwoman. Even with the successes, audiences face flaws like the obvious CGI-rendered Spider-Man and Hulk in their first movies, or unfortunate choices such as Ian McKellen's dumb-looking Magneto helmet in the X-Men films.

Animation holds out an easier approach. It goes with comic book stories as comfortably as a cape and cowl. The best cartoon features and TV series can do an end run around the real world's limitations to offer an unlimited canvas that emulates iconic comic book art while putting exciting designs into motion. The right voice performances can even convey emotional heft without hanging a tights-wearing movie star from wires.

Cartoon crusaders are nothing new. Max Fleischer's Oscar-nominated "Superman" cartoons first appeared in 1941, merely three years after the Man of Steel (arguably the first superhero) made his comic book debut. Just as live-action comic book movies gradually evolved over decades from joke status to serious consideration – from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Christian Bale – so has superheroic animation become increasingly sophisticated. They're still primarily marginal works produced for cable or DVD, but new projects, such as the straight-to-DVD Wonder Woman animated film released March 3, suggest that animated heroes are ready to make the leap to the big time.

Wonder Woman has spent nearly seven decades battering at a glass ceiling, despite her golden lasso and bullet-proof bracelets. Created in 1941, she's probably DC Comics' third most famous character behind Superman and Batman – the only three to have been in print (more or less) continuously since their debuts before World War II. She's pop culture's most famous female superhero, yet has never enjoyed a big-screen treatment, while Superman and Batman have seen multiple franchises. The mid-1970s Lynda Carter TV series offers Wonder Woman's greatest claim to non-comic book fame.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" screenwriter Joss Whedon, who worked on a Wonder Woman script in the early 2000s, suggested that DC characters contain an innate hurdle, having been created to be more like pulpy gods than identifiable people. Whedon told Maxim magazine, "DC's characters, like Wonder Woman and Superman and Green Lantern, were all very much removed from humanity. Batman was the only character they had who was so rooted in pain, that had that same gift that the Marvel characters had, which was that gift of humanity that we can relate to."

Wonder Woman's origin makes her nearly as alien as Superman, but instead of being from another planet, she was raised on a magical island steeped in Greek mythology. In bringing Wonder Woman to life, writers must strike a balancing act between a Gloria Steinem-style feminist and a male fantasy figure with BDSM associations. And who can you cast as Wonder Woman who looks the part while conveying the sense of presence? A film would need a combination of gold-medal Olympian, supermodel and Shakespearean tragedian.

As a charter member of the 1970s "Super Friends," the cartoon Wonder Woman had no trouble meeting the role's physical requirements. More recently, the Cartoon Network's "Justice League" series and the DC Universe Original Animated Movies line have given the character complex shadings. In last year's Cold War-era DVD feature Justice League: The New Frontier, Wonder Woman (voiced by Lucy Lawless of "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Battlestar Galactica") emerged as the equivalent of the merciless Furies of legend. In one scene, she rescues women prisoners in 1950s Indochina, and allows them to exact horrific revenge on male captors.

DC's and Marvels' straight-to-DVD movies take advantage of PG-13 ratings to attract older audiences, occasionally touching on mature themes and sometimes simply indulging in gratuitous violence. DC's new Wonder Woman film from producer Bruce Timm and director Lauren Montgomery begins with a lavish, bloody prologue like the opening battle from The Fellowship of the Ring. The all-female Amazon warriors, led by Queen Hippolyta (Virginia Madsen), overthrow their masculine oppressors, including Ares, the God of War (voiced by Alfred Molina, who played Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2). The Amazons strip Ares of his supernatural powers and retire to the mystic island of Themyscira, where Hippolyta creates an infant daughter out of sand.

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