Humankind doesn't have too much to worry about in the months ahead. With comic book-inspired heroes thick on the ground over the American summer movie season, your average bad guy may want to take the warm northern months off. But how much saving do cinemagoers need?
Seven films will be premiering between April and August that are either adaptations of established characters or original superheroes. That's a lot of rippling muscles and conflicted id for popcorn munchers around the world to commit their time and money to. Who will raise their clenched fist, victorious amidst a maelstrom of testosterone-fuelled action (yes, barring one sociopathic teenage offsider, they are all men), and who will lie bloodied and depleted, their franchise hopes dashed?
Mighty oaks grow from little acorns and none of the bunch looks as nutty as James Gunn's Super, a well-reviewed 'little film' about a big town shut-in (acquired taste Rainn Wilson) who adopts a lycra-clad persona. Wisely getting the jump on its mega-budget brethren, Super may be coming a little late in the real-guys-as-mixed-up-heroes genre (Kick-Ass; Defendor; Griff the Invisible). James Gunn has a cult following thanks to his 2006 sci-fi/horror romp Slither and the web is buzzing over shots of Juno's Ellen Page as sidekick 'Boltie', all grown-up and poured into green-and-gold spandex. Super may soar if it can hold onto screens in the crowded marketplace.
Also determined to win over smaller crowds is Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, in which action icon Donnie Yen's caped crusader takes on Japanese Mafia heavies. A hit in late 2010 across Asia, Yen's dynamic martial arts skills could have been used in the just-okay adaptation of The Green Hornet, which kicked off 'The Year of the Super Hero' in January. Lau's film will get a week to impress American audiences before the battle of the mega-movies begins in earnest with Kenneth Branagh's Thor.
Though long-in-development and highly-anticipated, Marvel's latest megahero entrant better be more Spider-man than The Incredible Hulk if it is going to be the event pic its marketing is touting it to be. Interestingly, it's rolling out across Europe (where the Norse underpinnings of the story's mythology carry more cultural weight) a full two weeks prior to its US debut on May 6. Buzz is high, yet some elements are worth examining: director Branagh hasn't been allowed near a studio tentpole since his notoriously expensive 1994 dud Frankenstein, and he isn't exactly Michael Bay; Anthony Hopkins is chewing the scenery for cash, again; the trailer and the series of 'personality' posters offer nothing very fresh; and leading man, Aussie Chris Hemsworth, is an unknown quantity.
More than one commentator has noted that a key character from the comic series, the distinctly-nordic God Heimdall, has been reimagined as a black character (played by Idris Elba). Were there demographic concerns that an all-white cast in a $150million film about an arrogant, blonde muscle-man wouldn't play to audiences in urban centres?
Paramount will have two full weeks in cinemas to nurture the public image of Thor before Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides takes away its screen count.
Marvel will next aim to resurrect its X-Men franchise by taking it back to the very roots of the story with Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class (pictured), out June 2. The underwhelming Wolverine left a sour taste in the mouths and minds of many X-fans; James McAvoy steamed it up with Angelina Jolie in Wanted but action fans were nonplussed – he's cast here as a young Professor Xavier (the character made famous by Patrick Stewart). But Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (as Mystique) and Michael Fassbender (as Magneto) are both on the cusp of big things and may be just what this franchise reboot needs to generate interest beyond the fanboys.
Fox's big summer hope has to hit huge on Day One; with JJ Abram's white-hot alien-adventure Super 8 just one of several films snapping at its heels, X-Men: First Class will need to have its audience satiated before the release of Martin Campbell's Green Lantern. The ace in the pack for rival publishing giant, DC Comics, this decades-brewing project felt big and exciting when the first teaser trailer was released. The adaptation has some factors in its favour: Ryan Reynolds is popular across all demographics (his place in fanboy history is assured after title-role performances here and in the soon-to-shot Wolverine spin-off, Deadpool); an inspired support cast ('It Girl' Blake Lively; an unrecognisable Peter Saarsgard as villain Hector Hammond); and glimpses of an otherworldly alien realm. Enthusiasm cooled with a longer trailer that played up Reynolds' goofy charm but, despite such broad marketing moves, Green Lantern is still shaping up to be the wearer of the global super hero crown this season. Unless Joe Johnston's Captain America can wrestle away the title.
Retitled The First Avenger for its international release (changing the name would be a whole lot easier than convincing the world America really could be everyone's saviour), early footage suggested a mix of old-school World War II action (ala Johnston's terrific 1991 film, The Rocketeer), and cutting edge technology (actor Chris Evans' face transplanted digitally, onto a small actor's body, a la Benjamin Button). Evans still has fan goodwill despite the otherwise regrettable Fantastic Four films, but the release schedule is not for the timid; Captain is log-jammed between the final Harry Potter instalment and the headline-friendly Cowboys and Aliens. This is an interesting and expensive gamble for Marvel. It needs to hit big with the US domestic audience to carry it overseas; if international crowds get a whiff that even the patriotic American moviegoer wouldn't watch it, it will be tough to convince the rest of us otherwise.
Rounding out the US summer, Marvel will relaunch one of the original comic-to-movie heroes: Conan the Barbarian. The film is being touted as a return to the original comic book blood-and-thunder storyline as opposed to a remake of Arnie's star-making version. One wonders whether the modern audience can sit straight-faced through the monosyllabic grunting of a Hyborian-age Cimmerian he-man who wields a big blade and wears very little (the teaser trailer is very giggle-worthy).
Hollywood is counting on heroes begetting heroes (and heroic box office returns). In 2012, expect Iron Man 3, the eventual re-emergence of Wolverine, a third Men in Black film, Zach Snyder's Superman, Ghost Rider 2, and the eventual release of John Carter of Mars. Also on the horizon is confirmation of the 2013 release of the biggest superhero event film of all time, Marvel's Avengers (and don't give up on DC's much-delayed Justice League just yet). Seems we need heroes just as much as ever; if only they bypassed cinemas and occasionally popped up during the 6pm news bulletins, we might live in a very different world.