LOS ANGELES - 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.
This weekend 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 Associated Press
In this film released by Sony Pictures, Andrew Garfield is shown in a scene from 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' set for release on July 3.
"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," he said.
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."