After a winter of bleak "serious" film, LCW's Mark Shaffer anticipates "comics" relief. And explosions… The Previews

Let's face it, summer's the season of escape, particularly a summer like the one ahead – one that promises to bludgeon us silly with waaaaaaay too much real life what with the war, the election and no American Idol (yikes!). Keep your films. I’ve had more than my fill this past season. There Will Be Blood made good on its self-fulfilling prophecy and No Country For Old Men sure was. In the summertime I want entertainment, distraction, escape, good guys vs. bad guys, impossible feats of heroism and derring-do, and lots and lots of stuff blowing up real good.

I need two hours in the air-conditioned dark with stadium seating and a rock-your-socks-off sound system, a large popcorn (hold the butter) with a bunch of busted bad guys and a happy ending at the bottom of the box. I need me some good ol' fashioned butt-kickin'. And apparently so do some of these serious film types. Consider that in the five movies  highlighted here, an awful lot of the major players involved are either Oscar winners or nominees. The guys who wrote Iron Man, for instance, are also responsible for the relentlessly grim and astonishing Children of Men. Mad Mexican genius Guillermo del Toro, finally earned worldwide acclaim with the macabre wartime fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth . That film’s success earned him (and us) another trip to the freakishly fun world of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense with Hellboy II: The Golden Army. And double Oscar nominee (and notoriously high-minded talent) Edward Norton steps into Bruce Banner’s shoes as the Incredible Hulk in this summer’s action-packed (we hope) reboot. Norton’s shoe closet should be full. He’s not only starring as the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant, but co-wrote the script and produced, as well. And then there’s this bunch with names like Lucas, Spielberg, Ford and Blanchett attached to a little movie 19 years in making. But we’ll get to that.

In the meantime, drop that Cormac McCarthy book, lace up your PF Flyers, hop on your bike (the one with the cards in the spokes) and wheel on down to the comics wrack at the dime store.

It's going to be a Marvel -ous Summer

Iron Man 5/2
“I’m just not the hero type, clearly” claims Robert Downey, Jr . as Tony Stark, genius, amoral billionaire arms manufacturer in the summer blockbuster season's leadoff slot opening 5/2. Given Downey's troubled past, actor/writer/director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf) pulled off nothing short of a super human effort in selling the studio on Downey's tarnished star. He claims that he never considered anyone else for the part even though A-listers like Tom Cruise were sniffing around the part. This may have seemed a risky move, but make no mistake, this is not that Robert Downey, Jr. This is the RDJ who nailed an Oscar nod for his uncanny channeling of Chaplin . Superhero? Bring on the suit. Gwyneth Paltrow is Stark’s faithful assistant/love interest, Terrence Howard steps up as best pal and future Marvel franchise (War Machine ) and the criminally underrated Jeff Bridges loses his hair to play the heavy with cameos by Sam Jackson, Hillary Swank and more.

The Story: Stark is captured following a demonstration of his latest WMD and forced to build a super weapon for some very Al Qaeda-looking guys. Instead, he undergoes a moral epiphany, builds an armored suit and escapes with the idea of protecting the people he’s "put in harm’s way." But first he’s got to do what every self-respecting, aspiring superhero must do: perfect the tools of the trade, cultivate an alter ego, confront his inner demons and, like fellow Marvel alumnus Peter Parker , learn that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Oh yeah, and kick some righteous bad guy butt.

The Buzz: Behold! Another super franchise is born. Crowds at comic convention screenings around the country have gone nuts during the sneak peeks and the studio has already locked down both Downey and Favreau for at least two more movies. At one point while he's testing the suit, Stark says "let's see if this dog will hunt." Yeah, it'll hunt. And wash and wax your car. Parents, this is THE action figure/Halloween costume of the year. Get ‘em while you can.

Extra: Downey's Stark appears briefly in Marvel's other potential blockbuster, The Incredible Hulk. Easter eggs apparently abound in both movies signaling Marvel's intent to bring the old comic book crossover formula to the big screen. A Spider-Man/Iron Man/Hulk film is allegedly in development.

The Incredible Hulk 6/13
About three hours into Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk something happened. Or so I'm told.  Apparently I slept through it like everyone else, including the execs at Marvel. The movie wasn't an all-out flop, but it was no blockbuster, either and for a big budget special effects extravaganza this generally means "sorry kid, you blew it." Not so with the Big Green Guy, a Marvel staple since Stan Lee dreamed him up on a deadline in 1962 (same year as Iron Man). Dr. Bruce Banner's been mutating into his raging, rampaging (yet, mostly good) alter ego since suffering the effects of massive gamma exposure and generally changing into the Hulk when appropriate. What's most appropriate this time is French director Louis Leterrier calling the shots. The man who helmed both Transporter movies is not prone to lengthy, angst-laden soliliquies. There will be action. And Edward Norton , who delivers what may be the most understated comic book line of the summer: "There are aspects of my personality I can't control." You betcha.

The Story: The fresh cast picks up shortly after the close of the last film as Banner searches for a cure to his "condition." The military and certain shadowy nasties are in hot pursuit.  This time around though, Hulk must face the diabolical Emile Blonsky (aka Abomination), who – like Banner – harbors an irradiated monster within. Only his is bigger, badder and kind of purple. Manhattan barely has time to sweep up after Cloverfield before the gamma ray smack down hits town.

The Buzz: This big green bird's come in under the radar. Although the initial trailer continues the trend of splattering the screen with spoilers, recent test screenings have been through the roof. Norton was rumored to have tapped out a few tantrums in his prima donna shoes during filming. Hey Ed, no one's coming to the theater to see Bruce Banner. Really. You’re the segue between lines like "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry" and CGI Hulk taking care of business. It’s a problem with changling heroes; we’re always waiting for them to change. That said, Tim Roth's turn as Hulk's new nemesis, Blonsky/Abomination, is said to rival Heath Ledger's Joker as the summer's best baddie. Liv Tyler replaces Jennifer Connelly as Banner's stalwart love, Betty Ross, while Oscar winner William Hurt takes over for Sam Elliott as her dad and Hulk chaser General "Thunderbolt" Ross.

Extra: TV's original Hulk, Lou Ferigno not only makes a cameo, he reportedly gets to do some of Hulk's voice work, as well, delivering the quintessential piece of Hulkspearean dialogue, "Hulk smash!"

The Dark Horse Rides

Hellboy II: The Golden Army 7/11
He's big and red with a tale and horns (which he files down), a right hand of stone and a left hand filled with a really big gun. He likes kittens, pancakes, cheap stogies and chasing things that go bump in the night – big, nasty things that go bump in the night. He's Hellboy, a demon brought to earth as an infant by Nazi occultists and raised by the Good Guys in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development, our last defence against the forces of evil. Based on Mike Mignola's ground-breaking Dark Horse comic, the sequel to 2004’s Hellboy reunites the original cast with writer/director Guillermo del Toro . This time out following the success of Pan's Labyrinth, GDT gets a bigger budget, an epic story and – most important – total creative control.  Journeyman character actor Ron Perlman (under 50 lbs of prosthetics) plays HB like a 1940’s film noir private eye – think a big, red, wisecracking Robert Mitchum . The rest of the team is equally, uh, unique: aquatic empath, Abe Sapien, protoplasmic mystic, Johann, and HB's would-be girlfriend, pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair ).

The Story: An ancient truce between humans and the invisible realm of the fantastic is shattered and a ruthless leader who moves between these worlds unleashes – wait for it –  an unstoppable army bent on mankind’s destruction (basically, business as usual for the BPRD). According to the studio, Hellboy and his team “must travel between the surface strata and the unseen magical one, where creatures of fantasy become corporeal.” We’re awarding extra points for both “strata” and “corporeal” in a studio handout.

The Buzz: Prepare to be amazed and entertained. Few filmmakers truly deserve the handle of “visionary.” Del Toro is at the head of the class (and it’s a small class). HBII marks his third foray into the genre (Blade II, Hellboy), and this time he’s calling all the shots. Now go rent Pan’s Labyrinth.

Extra: Good news for Middle Earth as Guillermo del Toro is packing for New Zealand having just been tapped by Peter Jackson as his successor on the two Hobbit films currently in development. 

High Voltage DC

The Dark Knight 7/18
Rumors have hit the web lately that extra cuts have been made to TDK because of concerns studio execs have over how audiences will react to certain imagery in the wake of Heath Ledger’s death. If so, it’s a damn shame and if what we’re hearing about Ledger’s performance is true, a mutilation of his last great work.

Director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins had more peaks and valleys than the Swiss Alps, but still managed to work somehow, thanks to Christian Bale’s charismatic intensity as the Batman and Michael Caine’s fatherly butler, Alfred. Most of the impressive supporting cast is back (Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman) and Nolan’s tweaked the one part that didn’t work in Begins, replacing the spectacularly vapid Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenahaal (Jake’s older sister and Heath’s ol’ pard in Brokeback Mountain…hmm). Apart from Ledger, Aaron Eckhart is the notable addition as Gotham D.A., Harvey Dent (potential spoiler ahead).

The Story: Bats, Dent and Lt. James Gordon (Oldman) join forces to battle the crime wave unleashed in the first flick. As the partnership evolves, a grinning psychopath unleashes a wave of terror on Gotham City forcing a showdown with the Caped Crusader from which only one will survive.

The Buzz: The title should have been changed simply to “Joker.” Ledger owns the movie, but (spoiler here) as all faithful Batfans know, Harvey Dent’s doomed to become Two Face … Word is, there may be a legion of lesser villains for the Bat to deal with, as well.

Extra: Nestor Carbonell (the Mayor), once played a character called Batmanuel, a kind of barrio Batman knock-off in the brilliant but short-lived TV superhero satire, The Tick.

“It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage”

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

(Okay, so it’s not from a comic, but it feels like it should be)

The studio tag line proclaims “The man in the hat is back.” Oh yeah? Well what the hell took him so long?  It’s been 19 years since Indy rode off into the sunset at the end of The Last Crusade. In the intervening years an entire generation has grown up without our favorite whip-cracking, two-fisted, globe-trotting archeologist on the big screen. Then there were all the problems trying to get Speilberg , Lucas and Ford on the same page – literally. Seemingly, every writer in Hollywood took a whack at a script – even M. Night Shyamalan (nothing really happens for a long time, but it’s creepy with a surprise ending and I have a cameo). Finally the venerable David Koep (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man) apparently turned in something neither Spielberg, Lucas or Ford could disagree on in unison. Somebody wake up John Williams and cue the theme music already..

The Story: So, there’s this kingdom, right? And there’s, like, a crystal skull or something there. And some dudes in weird headdresses swinging things on chains and Cate Blanchett kind of looks like Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons and…

Never mind.  WE DON’T KNOW. We’ve just watched the trailer online about a thousand times. As the last Star Wars trilogy proved, George Lucas couldn’t direct traffic these days, but he sure can drop the Cone of Silence on a movie. The only human to spill any sort of “inside info” was an extra who was immediately cut out of the film and sued. You go George. What we do know is there are no Nazis this time out, Cate Blanchett (Agent Irina Spalko) does indeed look a bit like Natasha from Bullwinkle, up and coming phenom, Shia LaBeouf , is there to bring in the aforementioned lost generation and Ray Winstone fills in for the late Denholm Elliott as Indy’s new sidekick. Oh yeah (theme music swells), and after a mere 27 years, Karen Allen reprises her role as Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s true match and always a threat to drink the bad guys under the table.

The Buzz: Duh, did we mention it’s the first Indiana Jones movie since W’s daddy was in the White House? Who cares if everybody’s older? That’s the running gag. It’ll all work out. Trust me .

Extra: See George Lucas.

The Wrap

I once heard a couple of guys arguing hammer and tongs about a scene from Superman Returns. They weren’t questioning the believability of an impervious, flying alien (who looks just like us) capable of reversing the orbit of the planet and therefore time itself. No, there was hearty disagreement over how a plane would have handled the stress of a high altitude freefall … forget it. The point is we go to comic book movies to escape, to forget, to be wowed. For a couple of hours the world is a better place once the hero actually succeeds in saving it. Or as the Fantastic 4’s Ben Grimm (aka “The Thing) might say, “everything’s better after clobberin’ time.” Save me a seat in the middle.