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Here come the comic-book movies

Summer preview looks at blockbuster contenders, others

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Prepare for a summer bursting at the seams with multi-million-dollar special effects and familiar names. Always a staple of Hollywood's high season, comic-book movies will dominate theaters in the months to come. From relatively obscure (Korean graphic novel-inspired "Priest") to the truly iconic ("X-Men: First Class"), heroes and villains will spring from the pages of famous graphic novels and onto the silver screen.

A few legendary characters (Thor and Green Lantern) will get their first shot at feature-film glory, while others, like Conan the Barbarian, get a 21st-century face-lift.

Harry Potter, in his final bow, leads a slew of sequels ("The Hangover Part II," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," and "Cars 2"), adding to the long list of familiar faces.

In between all the big-budget films and their cross-promotions (just try to pick up a soda can this sweaty summer and not find a fictional film character), Hollywood still has found room for some more mature material. Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" finally comes to theaters, and the Jodie Foster-directed "The Beaver," penned by Austinite Kyle Killen, finally will be judged based on its merits and not star Mel Gibson's behavior.

Here we look at 25 of the biggest movies coming to Austin in the coming months.

The comic book movies

Friday: "Thor"— He's not in Asgard anymore, Toto. After his arrogance and stupidity drive his father to distraction, Thor, who resembles a WWE wrestler, gets an express ticket to Earth, where he must do some growing up (and a little bit of fighting) before he can regain his superpowers. It's in 3D (duh), so expect to get a big, fat hammer in your face.

May 13: "Priest"— And you thought the vampire craze was dead. Of course, it wouldn't exactly be fair to label "Priest" a vampire movie, lest you get the impression that there are mopey teens here looking for love and acceptance. The movie, based on a popular Korean graphic novel, mixes elements of horror, fantasy and Western iconography in its tale of a priest who leaves his order in an attempt to save his kidnapped niece.

June 3: "X-Men: First Class"— British director Matthew Vaughn, who has shown an adept hand with humor and action in "Kick-Ass" and "Layer Cake," brings his talents to the fifth installment of this franchise. James McAvoy slides into the role of Professor X in a movie that details the history of mutants such as Mystique, played by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, who wowed in last year's "Winter's Bone."

June 17: "Green Lantern"— Superhunk Ryan Reynolds (photos on the cover) plays hot-shot pilot Hal Jordan who stumbles into the brotherhood of superheroes known as much for their glowing rings as for their dutiful oaths. Expect a nice blend of wry humor and explosive action from director Martin Campbell, who showed skill at blending the two elements when he shepherded two films in the James Bond franchise.

July 1: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"— Michael Bay makes things go "boom!" once again in his third "Transformers" movie. Shia LaBeouf returns to battle the "evil ... forces of ... the Decepticons!" but this time without Megan Fox, whose sexiness is replaced by the sultry Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

July 22: "Captain America: The First Avenger"— Chris Evans finds his way back into the Marvel world (he appeared as the Human Torch in two "Fantastic Four" films), where he transforms from the scrawny Steve Rogers into the shield-wielding exemplar of American exceptionalism.

July 29: "Cowboys & Aliens"— Director Jon Favreau DJs this summer's ultimate genre mash-up as sci-fi meets Western in this bit of Steven Spielberg-produced explosiveness starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.

Aug. 19: "Conan the Barbarian"— Former "Baywatch" lifeguard Jason Momoa brings his bulging biceps to this remake of a movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star.

Other big titles

May 20: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"— Rob Marshall ("Chicago") moves into the director's seat for the fourth installment of this franchise, but make no mistake, this is Johnny Depp's ship. The sublimely beautiful Penelope Cruz joins Jack Sparrow for his journey on the high seas.

May 26: "The Hangover Part II"— How do you follow up the most financially successful R-rated comedy in history? Get the gang back together, ship them off to Bangkok and throw a crazed monkey into the mix.

May 26: "Kung Fu Panda 2"— I hope the panda asked for points on the back end because the original "Kung Fu Panda" made more than $500 million. That's a lot of bamboo. Jack Black returns to star with Angelina Jolie. If we can't see her, at least we can hear her.

June 10: "Super 8"— Multi-hyphenate J.J. Abrams follows up his 2009 summer smash, "Star Trek," with a stylized homage to his 1970s childhood and his nascent love of filmmaking. Early word is strong. Starring Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights").

June 24: "Cars 2"— Five years after they first captured the imagination of a generation of tykes, Lightning McQueen and his ol' buddy Mater are growing up with their audience as they head overseas and find themselves tangled in a web of international espionage.

July 15: "Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, Part 2"— Parting is such sweet sorrow, but the time has finally come for us to say goodbye to young Harry and, by proxy, Daniel Radcliffe, who has gone from pre-teen to young man in front of our eyes. In the dramatic conclusion, our bespectacled hero tracks down Voldemort for the final battle of this epic film franchise.

July 29: "The Smurfs"— Some fans of the original Smurfs movie from 1983 are old enough to take their kids to see this take on the classic cartoon that stars Neil Patrick Harris. That's some serious staying power for the little blue cultural phenoms.

Aug. 5: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"— Oscar host, soap star, dramatic actor and heartthrob ... if there is anyone who can manage a rebellion by a bunch of apes, it's James Franco.

Aug. 19: "Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World"— Remember all of those Jessica Alba and Jeremy Piven sightings in Austin last year? They were in town filming the first "Spy Kids" movie in almost a decade. Following on the heels of the controversial and entertaining "Machete," the family-friendly film is proof that few filmmakers can shift gears like Austinite Robert Rodriguez.

Smaller but notable

Friday: "The Beaver"— A man loses his family and his business and slides into a depression that has him communicating with the outside world through use of a beaver hand-puppet. And if that isn't enough to make you sit up and take notice, the man happens to be played by Mel Gibson, in his first role since making countless scandalous headlines.

May 13: "Bridesmaids"— After years of the guys having all of the fun in Judd Apatow-produced movies, the ladies get the stage to themselves in this comedy written by and starring Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live"). Paul Feig, who's had a hand in some of the most beloved TV comedies of the past 12 years — "Freaks and Geeks," "Arrested Development" and "The Office" — directs.

May 13: "Hesher"— Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a headbanger who has a redemptive effect on a dysfunctional family in this unique film co-starring Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson and newcomer Devin Brochu.

June 3: "The Tree of Life"— The surreal and magical trailer for enigmatic Austinite Terrence Malick's latest offers hope that movie lovers' collective patience will be well-rewarded and their expectations exceeded.

June 3: "Incendies"-—This multilayered Canadian Oscar nominee tracks the life of a Middle Eastern woman who dies and asks her son and daughter to investigate two questions: the identity of their father, and the identity of a previously unknown brother.

June 24: "Bad Teacher"— Justin Timberlake continues his foray into the movie world as a teacher who is the object of affection of a duplicitous, foul-mouthed colleague played by Cameron Diaz.

July 1: "Larry Crowne"— Tom Hanks, helming for the first time since "That Thing You Do!," directs himself (and Julia Roberts) in the story of a lovable and earnest middle-aged goofball who enrolls in community college classes after his life hits a snag.

July 29: "Crazy, Stupid, Love"— Ryan Gosling, who transfixed audiences in last year's "Blue Valentine," shows off his comedic chops in the romantic comedy about a newly single man (Steve Carell) trying to get his groove back.

Aug. 12: "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"— Guillermo del Toro helped write the screenplay for this thriller starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce. It's based on a 1973 TV movie starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986