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Hollywood brings out big guns for a superhero summer

By Henry Hanks, CNN
updated 2:36 PM EDT, Thu May 3, 2012
 From left,
From left, "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" are expected to be blockbusters this summer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hollywood bringing back box-office juggernauts Iron Man, Batman and Spider-Man
  • 2012 may be a peak year for superheroes on film, with much more to come
  • Writer-director: DC Comics characters often face more challenges than Marvel
  • '"The genre has been popular for decades and is here to stay," Boxofficeguru.com editor says

(CNN) -- Comic book fans aren't the only ones expected to assemble in theaters Friday.

Judging by its early international box office take, "The Avengers" -- the superhero equivalent of a musical supergroup -- should blow away the competition, kicking off the summer movie season as a hit with a wide spectrum of moviegoers. Early tracking estimates see it as possibly beating "The Dark Knight's" then-record opening weekend from 2008, which "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" overtook last summer.

Not to be outdone, the final chapter in the Batman trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises," also has high expectations of its own to meet on July 20. ("Rises" is from Warner Bros. Pictures, and the Batman character is part of DC Comics. They are both owned by Time Warner, also CNN's parent company.)

Compared with these two superheroes, "Spider-Man 3" is practically ancient history. It too set a box-office record in 2007 for biggest opening weekend. Sony Pictures hopes to recapture some of that magic with the release of "The Amazing Spider-Man" reboot on July 3, a holiday weekend.

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The upcoming trio of films is a far cry from recent years when movies such as "Iron Man" and "Green Lantern" took a chance by introducing lesser-known superheroes on the big screen with very different results.

This summer the question is not, "Will superhero movies be big," but "How big will they be?" You can hardly ask for safer bets than Spidey, Batman and a powerhouse superhero team.

So will this be the moment that superhero movies reach their peak of popularity?

"This summer will blow 2008 (the year of 'Iron Man' and 'The Dark Knight') out of the water," predicted Bill Ramey of Batman-on-film.com. "It might have it beat, (even) if only 'Rises' was being released."

Author and professor Van Plexico, speaking from the viewpoint of the fan of "The Avengers" (he runs AvengersAssemble.net), agrees.

"There's no doubt that with so many epic franchises all rolling out this year, guys in capes -- and webs -- will be hauling in a lot of loot at the box office. It's just inevitable. No wonder Superman wisely held off till next year."

At the same time, each of these movies faces the challenge of potentially not living up to expectations.

"At this point, my only fear is that the hype (around 'The Avengers') will prove to be too much, and people's expectations will rise too far for the movie to possibly meet them, no matter how good it is," Plexico said.

Gitesh Pandya of Boxofficeguru.com said: "' The Avengers' has that challenge of going beyond the superhero crowd and to a more mainstream action crowd, but it seems to me that they have successfully done that. Excitement seems to be there among all groups and around the world. I see 'The Avengers' breaking the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office."

As for "Rises," Ramey voiced one simple fact of life when it comes to movie franchises: "How many third films in a series have been good?" (Even so, he said he thinks the new Batman movie has the potential to be better than the last one, which is often credited for the expansion of the Academy Awards' best picture category to 10 films.)

" 'The Dark Knight Rises' will have to enter the marketplace without the Heath Ledger factor," Pandaya said, referring to the star's death before the release of "The Dark Knight." "However, the last film was so well-loved that the new film will benefit from those coattails."

If anything, the "Spider-Man" reboot, with its new cast and creative team, including Andrew Garfield in the title role, seems to have the most challenges of them all.

"It's only been five years since the previous trilogy ended, but if they make a solid film, then people will come and the movie could last," Pandya said.

Plexico added, " 'The Amazing Spider-Man' must hit a home run, to justify the series reboot so very soon after the previous trio of Spidey films."

Not that Sony is sweating it too much: It has already hired hotshot screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to pen a new Spidey sequel.

One doesn't have to be a genius to guess that not only will there be many more superhero films in the future, but also this summer won't be the last moviegoers see of the Avengers and Batman on the big screen (not to mention the individual Avengers -- "Thor 2," "Iron Man 3" and "Captain America 2" -- which are already in the works.)

"The genre has been popular for decades and is here to stay," Pandya said. "The main factor will be for studios to release the right number of comic films each year and to not overdo it as any genre can be hurt by an overabundance of product. I think the marketplace can handle three to four superhero films per year."

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But can Hollywood live on a few main superhero characters alone? The chances of a "Green Lantern" sequel look slimmer with each passing day, "Wonder Woman" plans fell through several years ago, and it's anyone's guess as to how next year's Superman reboot, "Man of Steel," will be received. What about that DC Comics' "Justice League of America" film (which, if not for a 2008 writers' strike, might well have beaten Marvel's "The Avengers" to the screen by a good many years)?

One person who had something to say about that possibility was "The Avengers" writer/director Joss Whedon (who once tried his hand at "Wonder Woman"), at a recent press conference.

"DC has a harder time of it than Marvel because their characters are (from) an old, a bygone era, where characters were bigger than we were," he said. "And ... they've amended that, but Marvel really cracked the code in terms of 'they're just like us.' So a dose of that sort of veracity that Marvel really started with 'Iron Man,' I think you should use that as your base."

Whedon pointed to 2002's "Spider-Man" as a model of a successful superhero film by staying true to the comic while also being entertaining as a movie.

Plexico had a few ideas for the next big superhero on the screen, even if "Justice League of America" doesn't pan out.

"I think the Flash (from DC) has the potential to be a big hit, given his rogues' gallery and great years of history to work with," he said.

"For Marvel, Moon Knight could be their 'Dark Knight,' at least to a degree. And it would be great to see their 'cosmic' characters break loose on film -- Captain Marvel, Nova, Ms. Marvel and so on."

No matter what Hollywood comes up with next -- there are still rumors of an "Ant Man" film out there and a reboot of "Fantastic Four" -- fans know that after this summer the movie studios will keep trying to assemble the right elements for a superhero blockbuster.

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