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Image: Thor, Captain America, X-Men, Green Lantern
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The superheroes are coming -- and in the case of Thor, are already here. "Thor," "Captain America," "X-Men: First Class" and "Green Lantern" all open this summer.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 5/5/2011 7:23:36 PM ET 2011-05-05T23:23:36

More than the sequels and animated family romps and raunchy R-rated comedies, comic book movies have become Hollywood’s summer calling card.  The heroes of the splash page have pushed aside the action icons and talking animals to become the marquee names of the movie biz. And they’re flexing their considerable muscles over the next few months.

Four of the biggest, most blockbusting superhero films you’ve ever laid your 3D-spectacled eyes on are heading to the multiplex over the next three months. The stars? A band of mod young outcasts, an interstellar cop who digs green, the super-powered personification of Uncle Sam and a Thunder God.

'Thor': One for the family
The first Super Summer film is already out of the gate. “Thor," which opened May 6, is dripping with Shakespearean parallels: Father-son feuds, sibling rivalries and enough thee's and thou's to give the residents of Stratford-upon-Avon word envy. In other words, the perfect family film.

Video: Hemsworth walks red carpet for 'Thor' (on this page)
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“Thor” takes place on 2 worlds — Asgard, home of the Norse Gods, and Midgard (that’s what the gods call good old planet Earth).  A mighty but headstrong warrior, Thor is banished to hang with us mere mortals by his angry father Odin, who wants his son to learn humility.

Story: 'Thor' rumbles, but never quite roars

Oscar-winner Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Odin, while newly minted Academy Award winner Natalie Portman plays Thor’s earthbound love interest. Ray Stevenson, Rene Russo and Idris Elba fill out supporting roles. Chris Hemsworth is a relative newcomer, but what he lacks in experience he makes up for in pure muscle. Story: How does 'Thor' stack up against other heroes?

Director Kenneth Branagh was hired because of his gift for character-driven work, but he promises the action will be appropriately epic. Comics fans will be happy to know Thor’s legendary hammer Mjolnir (pronounced Mee-yol-nur) gets lots of play. Coupled with a big metal baddie subtly named The Destroyer, the father-son drama, the romance and a cameo or two from other characters in the expanding Marvel movie universe, and you have the ingredients for a film that could please both kids and the grownups.

Video: Watch the 'Thor' trailer (on this page)

FUN FACT: Hemsworth got so pumped up for the role, his Thor costume didn’t fit the first time he tried it on.

'Captain America': For people who don't like capes
Superheroes don’t float your boat? Couldn’t care less about whether Batman lives in Gotham or Central City?

Then circle July 22 on your movie calendar.  That’s when Captain America throws his mighty shield.

Video: Tucci dishes on filming 'Captain America' (on this page)

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is as much a war movie as it is a superhero adventure. The World War II-set story is about Steve Rogers, a kid so spindly and scrawny he couldn’t get drafted.  Volunteering for a top-secret Army research project, the sickly young idealist is transformed into the ultimate super-soldier.

Chris Evans, no stranger to comic book adaptations (“Fantastic Four,” “The Losers”), plays the title character. “Matrix” nemesis Hugo Weaving portrays Hitler henchman and main villain the Red Skull, with Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci also playing key roles.

Video: Watch the 'Captain America' trailer (on this page)

Are there mad scientists and crazy villains? Yes, and Cap is as jacked as a human could be without being bitten by a radioactive spider or infected with gamma radiation. But early footage indicates the greatest suspension of disbelief audiences will have to do involves those weird scenes of Evans as Rogers, before the experiment.

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Like “Thor,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” is part of Marvel’s theatrical tapestry, which culminates with 2012’s team up, “The Avengers.” So expect several references that may not make sense if you’re not a diehard.

Whether you read comic books or not, if there is one thing moviegoers of all tastes and inclinations can all get behind, it’s watching Nazis get an onscreen beat down.

FUN FACT: A 1990 “Captain America” film went straight to video. It starred Matt Salinger (author J.D. Salinger’s son) in the title role.

'Green Lantern': The space romance
“Green Lantern” (June 17) tells the tale of test pilot Hal Jordan, who discovers a magic ring that turns him into a member of an Intergalactic police force — the Green Lantern Corps.  Based on one of the most cosmic characters in comics, the film is hyped as a galaxy-hopping science fiction thrill ride. It features planets named OA and characters named Abin Sur, Sinestro and Kilowog.

It could also feature some serious romantic sparks. True, romance usually takes a backseat to mayhem and destruction in Hollywood this time of year. However, summer blockbusters normally don’t have two impossibly attractive stars such as Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively.

Video: Watch the 'Green Lantern' trailer (on this page)

While non-comics fans may not be that familiar with Hal Jordan or his ring-bearing superhero alter ego, Reynolds and Lively are a different matter.  Her stint on “Gossip Girl” and his successful turn sparring with Sandra Bullock in “The Proposal” have made them household names.

Video: Ryan Reynolds' superhero dreams (on this page)

“Green Lantern” could actually be the one superhero film that male fans won’t have to work terribly hard to sell to the women in their lives. After all, Reynolds was named one of People's sexiest men alive three years in a row.

Fun fact: The character of Hal Jordan was reportedly based loosely on romantic swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn.

'X-Men: First Class': The period piece
Going retro is a rather novel approach for rebooting a billion-dollar movie franchise. 

That’s exactly what “X-Men: First Class” is doing. The film, which premieres June 3, is the latest chapter in the saga that kick-started the current Golden Age of comic book films. Director Matthew Vaughn decided to move the story of Marvel’s popular Mutant heroes forward by going back to the beginning.

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The film is set in 1963, the same year the first X-Men comic book by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee hit newsstands. The trailer’s Cold War vibe makes the film seem more like a John Le Carre novel than a summer movie about super folks who can manipulate minds and magnetism. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender star as best buds Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, who later become mortal frenemies as Professor X and Magneto.

Video: Watch the trailer for 'X-Men: First Class' (on this page)

They lead a cast that includes Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), Rose Byrne and Kevin Bacon. January Jones also gets to put her time on “Mad Men” to good use, co-starring as the powerful and daringly dressed Emma Frost.

Much like the “Star Wars” prequels,  “X-Men: First Class” has the daunting task of telling a story to which everyone knows the ending.  Then there’s the undeniably weighty subject matter; the X-Men has always been a metaphorical tale about tolerance. Will a story set in the segregated 1960s be too heavy for the silly summer season?

The filmmakers have one thing in their favor. Audiences don’t have to worry about continuity or knowing the labyrinthine mythology of the X-Men. That, coupled with the vintage setting, could prove quite appealing to audiences who aren’t that impressed by submarines being pulled out of the water by an evil mutant.

Fun fact: Mega-moviemaker James Cameron was developing an X-Men movie back in 1989, but it was shelved due to various issues.

Michael Avila is a regular contributor to TODAY.com. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter @mikeavila.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch the 'Captain America' trailer

Photos: May movies

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  1. 'Thor '

    Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman

    Director: Kenneth Branagh

    Scheduled release date: May 6

    The powerful but arrogant warrior Thor is cast out of the fantastic realm of Asgard and sent to live amongst humans on Earth, where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders. () Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'Jumping the Broom'

    Stars: Paula Patton, Laz Alonso and Angela Bassett

    Director: Salim Akil

    Scheduled release date: May 6

    Two very different families converge on Martha's Vineyard one weekend for a wedding. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Something Borrowed'

    Stars: Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson and Colin Egglesfield

    Director: Luke Greenfield

    Scheduled release date: May 6

    Friendships are tested and secrets come to the surface when terminally single Rachel falls for Dex, her best friend Darcy's fiancé. (David Lee / Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'Bridesmaids'

    Stars: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne

    Director: Paul Feig

    Scheduled release date: May 13

    A comedy centered on two women battling to plan their friend's wedding party. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Priest'

    Stars: Paul Bettany, Cam Gigandet and Maggie Q

    Director: Scott Charles Stewart

    Scheduled release date: May 13

    A priest disobeys church law to track down the vampires who kidnapped his niece. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'

    Stars: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz and Ian McShane

    Director: Rob Marshall

    Scheduled release date: May 20

    Jack Sparrow and Barbossa embark on a quest to find the elusive fountain of youth, only to discover that Blackbeard and his daughter are after it too. (Disney Enterprises) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. "The Hangover 2"

    Stars: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms

    Director: Todd Phillips

    Scheduled release date: May 27

    Phil, Stu, Alan and Doug travel to Bangkok for Stu's wedding. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Kung Fu Panda 2'

    Stars: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan

    Director: Jennifer Yuh

    Scheduled release date: May 27

    Po joins forces with a group of new kung-fu masters to take on an old enemy with a deadly new weapon. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Tree of Life'

    Stars: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain

    Director: Terrence Malick

    Scheduled release date: May 27

    The story centers around a family with three boys in the 1950s. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence. (Fox Searchlight) Back to slideshow navigation
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Discuss: Superhero summer

"Thor," "Captain America," "X-Men" and "Green Lantern" are either in theaters or on their way. Will you see any of them? Why or why not?

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