As superhero summers go, this one is truly super.
Amid one of the most-promising box-office seasons Hollywood has ever served up, three movies stand above the rest.
The first weekend in May brings "The Avengers," the ensemble adventure teaming Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man with such fellow Marvel Comics heroes as Thor, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" follows over the Fourth of July as Marvel's web-slinger gets a fresh origin story, with Andrew Garfield taking over as teen-turned-superhero Peter Parker.
Finally, in late July, there's "The Dark Knight Rises," with Christian Bale returning as DC Comics' masked vigilante in the finale of director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.
These three are the gold standard for fans: "The Dark Knight," Tobey Maguire's three "Spider-Man" flicks and Downey's two "Iron Man" movies are the six top-grossing superhero adventures ever.
Add in solid receipts for solo turns of "Avengers" co-stars Chris Hemsworth in "Thor" and Chris Evans in "Captain America: The First Avenger" - plus the lure of a new incarnation of the Incredible Hulk by Mark Ruffalo in "Avengers" - and summer's superhero meter is off the charts.
"'The Avengers' is literally one of the first books I followed regularly. ... Some of the work that was done in there was really groundbreaking and really epic," said "The Avengers" writer-director Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). "It's great fun to take characters that you are so invested in, because you grew up with them, and get to put words in their mouths and figure out what they're going to be doing with their lives for a while.
Of course, there's plenty to fill in the gaps between superhero sagas.
Other action tales include "Men in Black 3," with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones; Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron's fairy-tale makeover "Snow White and the Huntsman"; Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi with "Prometheus"; "Avengers" co-star Jeremy Renner's "The Bourne Legacy"; Colin Farrell's remake "Total Recall"; and the board game adaptation "Battleship."
Cartoon makers offer up the Scottish adventure "Brave," the latest from the animation virtuosos at Pixar, while talking-animal franchises return with "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" and "Ice Age: Continental Drift."
The comedy and music front brings Adam Sandler's fatherhood story "That's My Boy"; the all-star song fest "Rock of Ages"; Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill's suburban romp "Neighborhood Watch"; Sacha Baron Cohen's tyrant tale "The Dictator"; and Whitney Houston's final film, "Sparkle."
And what would summer be without vampires? Johnny Depp turns blood-sucker as he reunites with director Tim Burton for "Dark Shadows," a big-screen take on the gothic soap opera. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" has the great emancipator taking down the undead.
Like director Whedon with "The Avengers," ''Amazing Spider-Man" star Garfield practically has Peter Parker in his DNA. Garfield has been a huge Spider-Man fan since age 4.
"I know the character really well. It's part of me already. It's like I've been preparing for the role for 24 years," said Garfield, who hints that destiny is at work in this version as orphan boy Peter's search for his parents puts him on a path with the mutant spider that endows him with superpowers.
Directed by Marc Webb and co-starring Emma Stone as romantic interest Gwen Stacy and Rhys Ifans as the villainous Lizard, "Amazing Spider-Man" aims to walk the line between gravity and exuberance, Garfield said.
"Marc Webb has approached this with a real eye for authenticity, emotional authenticity, a kind of groundedness and grittiness. It feels a bit darker to me," Garfield said. "Also, it's really important that Spidey has fun and is witty. The mask's a very powerful thing for anyone who wears it. It gives you leave to do anything you want, and I think in the hands of a teenager, he'll just run riot. I hope we've managed to have some of that."
"The Avengers" has superhero puppetmaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rounding up Downey's Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, Evans' Captain America, Hemsworth's Thor, Ruffalo's Hulk and Renner's Hawkeye to take on Thor's evil brother (Tom Hiddleston), who plots to unleash alien marauders on Earth.
"'The Avengers' challenge was just not so much the scope of it," Downey said. "It's funny to think about a superhero movie as being complex, but I think it was a little bit daunting imagining how you get the balance of all of these intersecting stories. ...
"It was a bit of a welcome relief in a certain sense in that 'Avengers,' once it took shape, was a very, very smartly executed and controlled venture."
Whether alone or together, much of the gang will be back. Downey's about to start shooting "Iron Man 3," Hemsworth and Evans have "Thor" and "Captain America" sequels coming and there's talk of solo spinoffs for some of the other Avengers.
Unlike "Avengers" and "Amazing Spider-Man," ''Dark Knight Rises" will not be playing in 3-D. Director Nolan just isn't a fan. Nolan does like shooting for the huge-screen IMAX format, so fans can count on a visual spectacle in those theaters.
"On 3-D, I don't know if that was ever even a debate," said Gary Oldman, who returns as Batman's police commissioner ally, Jim Gordon. "It's IMAX. That's as big and bold as it gets, so there's plenty of that."
Anne Hathaway signs on as Catwoman, while Nolan's "Inception" co-stars Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy join returning Batman cast members Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.
Nolan and his cast have kept details secret, but the film could spell a dark end for Bale's Dark Knight: Hardy plays the villain Bane, the brawny brute who broke Batman's back in the comic books.
Hardy has a tough act to follow. The late Heath Ledger won an Academy Award as Batman's last foe, the Joker, in "The Dark Knight."
"I find it interesting that he picked Bane as a villain, and he was not tempted to use the Riddler or the Penguin, the more obvious choices," Oldman said. "It suits the story better. It's a great read, it's a great piece. And there we are. There's the end of it."
Here's a look at other summer highlights:
- "Battleship": Taylor Kitsch and Liam Neeson are in the Navy now as sailors take on inhuman invaders in an action tale inspired by the game.
- "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel": Those classy Brits put some sophistication into summer with a tale of UK retirees in India. With Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson.
- "Chernobyl Diaries": Six rookie tourists mistakenly visit the site of the nuclear disaster and find unexpected horrors in the abandoned place.
- "Dark Shadows": We bet the latest reunion of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton will bring some fresh bite to vampires as they adapt the creepy TV soap opera featuring a 200-year-old blood-sucker.
- "The Dictator": Sacha Baron Cohen outdoes Castro with his wild beard in this comedy about a tyrant battling for untruth, injustice and the totalitarian way.
- "Men in Black 3": Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones return to fight aliens in a time-traveling action comedy that adds Josh Brolin as the young version of Jones' Agent K. Nice casting.
- "What to Expect When You're Expecting": Everyone's in a family way with an ensemble tale about pending parenthood that features Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks and Dennis Quaid.
- "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter": Can't wait for Steven Spielberg's upcoming biopic "Lincoln"? Then catch the 16th president (Benjamin Walker) as he emancipates the land from blood-suckers.
- "Brave": A Scottish lass (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) must undo the chaos her defiance has unleashed on her kingdom in the latest from the animation maestros at Pixar.
- "G.I. Joe: Retaliation": The toy soldiers inspire another live-action firefight featuring Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson.
- "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted": The zoo animals are still on tour as voice stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith return.
- "Magic Mike": Channing Tatum takes it off again in a story inspired by his early work as a male stripper. Steven Soderbergh directs.
- "People Like Us": "Star Trek's" Chris Pine comes down to Earth as a salesman tidying up his late father's estate in a comic drama co-starring Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer.
- "Piranha 3DD": It's another Friday night fish fry in reverse as prehistoric piranha chow down on tourists at a water park.
- "Prometheus": Ridley Scott. Science fiction. Any questions? The "Alien" creator returns to the genre with a cousin to his space horror tale starring Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender.
- "Rock of Ages": Journey and REO Speedwagon ride again in a musical romance featuring old rock tunes and a cast that includes Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Mary J. Blige, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julianne Hough.
- "Snow White and the Huntsman": Kristen Stewart's the fiercest in the land as she teams with a tough guy (Chris Hemsworth) to battle an evil queen (Charlize Theron).
- "That's My Boy": Adam Sandler tries to grow up as a bad dad hoping to make things right with his estranged grown son (Andy Samberg).
- "To Rome with Love": Woody Allen woos Italy and appears on-screen for the first time in years with an ensemble romance co-starring Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni and Ellen Page.
- "Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection": Filmmaker Perry reprises his role as saucy grandma Madea, who takes in the family of a CFO (Eugene Levy) in witness protection.
- "Ice Age: Continental Drift": For extinct species, these cartoon critters sure are survivors. Ray Romano and his voice co-stars are back with another prehistoric comedy.
- "Katy Perry: Part of Me": The pop superstar gets the 3-D treatment in a music documentary featuring performances and behind-the-scenes access.
- "Neighborhood Watch": Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill learn their town is teaming with space invaders disguised as average suburban dwellers.
- "Ruby Sparks": A character created by a novelist (Paul Dano) comes to life as a real woman (Zoe Kazan) in the latest from the directors of "Little Miss Sunshine."
- "Savages": California pot growers fight a Mexican drug ring in Oliver Stone's thriller featuring Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Taylor Kitsch and Uma Thurman.
- "Step Up: Revolution": The next round in the dance franchise has a crew of Miami hoofers fighting a neighborhood developer.
- "Ted": A teddy bear come to life is every boy's dream - until the thing sticks around into the kid's adult years. Mark Wahlberg stars in the comedy from Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy").
- "The Apparition": Ashley Greene stars in a spooky tale of a couple haunted by a presence conjured up in a college experiment.
- "The Bourne Legacy": The spirit of lethal operative Jason Bourne lives on, minus Matt Damon, with Jeremy Renner at the center of fallout from the first three action hits.
- "The Campaign": Dirty politics in this age of bipartisanship? Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis sling mud as congressional opponents in Jay Roach's comedy.
- "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days": The hapless hero (Zachary Gordon) of the best-selling books stumbles through trouble over summer vacation.
- "The Expendables 2": Action heroes crowd the screen again as Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and friends seek vengeance after a mission goes wrong.
- "Hope Springs": Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are a long-married couple trying to renew the spark with a counselor (Steve Carell) at a marital retreat.
- "The Odd Life of Timothy Green": A couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) eager to start a family gets a dose of the unexpected when a mysterious boy turns up at their door.
- "ParaNorman": The animated comedy centers on a boy who can speak with the dead and becomes the last hope of his hometown after it's overrun by zombies.
- "Premium Rush": A Manhattan bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is steered into a deadly chase when bad guys come looking for the delivery he's carrying.
- "Sparkle": Whitney Houston's final movie role features the late singer as mom to a girl group (including "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks) struggling with the pressures of fame.
- "Total Recall": Colin Farrell steps into Arnold Schwarzenegger's sci-fi role as an average guy on the run who uncovers a secret identity even he didn't know about.