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.
Opening today is "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 on July 3 as Marvel's web-slinger gets a fresh origin story, with Andrew Garfield taking over as teen-turned-superhero Peter Parker.
Finally, on July 20, 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 the board game adaptation "Battleship" (May 18); "Men in Black 3" (May 25), with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones; Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron's fairy-tale makeover "Snow White and the Huntsman" (June 1); Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi with "Prometheus" (June 8); "Avengers" co-star Jeremy Renner's "The Bourne Legacy" (Aug. 3); and Colin Farrell's remake "Total Recall" (Aug. 3).
Cartoon-makers offer up the Scottish adventure "Brave" (June 22), the latest from the animation virtuosos at Pixar, while talking-animal franchises return with "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (June 8) and "Ice Age: Continental Drift" (July 13).
The comedy and music front brings Adam Sandler's fatherhood story "That's My Boy" (June 15); the all-star song fest "Rock of Ages" (June 15); Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill's suburban romp "Neighborhood Watch" (July 27); Sacha Baron Cohen's tyrant tale "The Dictator" (May 16); and Whitney Houston's final film, "Sparkle" (Aug. 17).
And what would summer be without vampires? Johnny Depp turns blood-sucker as he reunites with director Tim Burton for "Dark Shadows" (next Friday), a big-screen take on the gothic soap opera. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (June 22) 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.
"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."
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. Dates are subject to change.
"Dark Shadows" (next Friday): 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.
"Battleship" (May 18): 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 Dictator" (May 18): Sacha Baron Cohen outdoes Castro with his wild beard in this comedy about a tyrant battling for untruth, injustice and the totalitarian way.
"Chernobyl Diaries" (May 25): Six rookie tourists mistakenly visit the site of the nuclear disaster and find unexpected horrors in the abandoned place.
"What to Expect When You're Expecting" (May 18): Everyone's in a family way with an ensemble tale about pending parenthood that features Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks and Dennis Quaid.
"Men in Black 3" (May 25): 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.
"Piranha 3DD" (June 1): It's another Friday night fish fry in reverse as prehistoric piranha chow down on tourists at a water park.
"Snow White and the Huntsman" (June 1): Kristen Stewart's the fiercest in the land as she teams with a tough guy (Chris Hemsworth) to battle an evil queen (Charlize Theron).
"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (June 8): The zoo animals are still on tour as voice stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith return.
"Prometheus" (June 8): 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" (June 15): 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.
"That's My Boy" (June 15): Adam Sandler tries to grow up as a bad dad hoping to make things right with his estranged grown son (Andy Samberg).
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (June 22): 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" (June 22): 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" (June 29): The toy soldiers inspire another live-action firefight featuring Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson.
"Magic Mike" (June 29): Channing Tatum takes it off again in a story inspired by his early work as a male stripper. Steven Soderbergh directs.
"Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection" (June 29): Filmmaker Perry reprises his role as saucy grandma Madea, who takes in the family of a CFO (Eugene Levy) in witness protection.
"People Like Us" (limited release): "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.
"To Rome with Love" (limited): 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.
"Katy Perry: Part of Me" (July 5): The pop superstar gets the 3-D treatment in a music documentary featuring performances and behind-the-scenes access.
"Savages" (July 6): California pot growers fight a Mexican drug ring in Oliver Stone's thriller featuring Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Taylor Kitsch and Uma Thurman.
"Ice Age: Continental Drift" (July 13): For extinct species, these cartoon critters sure are survivors. Ray Romano and his voice co-stars are back with another prehistoric comedy.
"Ted" (July 13): 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").
"Neighborhood Watch" (July 27): Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill learn their town is teaming with space invaders disguised as average suburban dwellers.
"Step Up: Revolution" (July 27): The next round in the dance franchise has a crew of Miami hoofers fighting a neighborhood developer.
"Ruby Sparks" (limited): 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."
"The Bourne Legacy" (Aug. 3): 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.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" (Aug. 3): The hapless hero (Zachary Gordon) of the best-selling books stumbles through trouble over summer vacation.
"Total Recall" (Aug. 3): 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.
"The Campaign" (Aug. 10): Dirty politics in this age of bipartisanship? Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis sling mud as congressional opponents in Jay Roach's comedy.
"Hope Springs" (Aug. 10): 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 Expendables 2" (Aug. 17): Action heroes crowd the screen again as Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and friends seek vengeance after a mission goes wrong.
"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" (Aug. 17): 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" (Aug. 17): 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.
"Sparkle" (Aug. 17): 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.
"The Apparition" (Aug. 24): Ashley Greene stars in a spooky tale of a couple haunted by a presence conjured up in a college experiment.
"Premium Rush" (Aug. 24): A Manhattan bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is steered into a deadly chase when bad guys come looking for the delivery he's carrying.