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Hollywood's summer of superheroes and sequels, again

By Zorianna Kit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If the summer 2012 movie season were a film in its own right, there can be little doubt it would be a sequel - or a reboot - and in either case, it would likely feature a superhero.

Hollywood's summer season kicks off on Friday with the release of "The Avengers" and as with recent years, the four-month period is dominated by superheroes, sequels and franchise reboots featuring epic battles between good and evil.

Sound like something audiences have seen before? It is, and for good reason in the minds of major studio executives.

With the summer season generating as much as 40 percent of the annual domestic box office, the pressure is on to lure core audiences of mostly young men to theaters, and superhero films, sequels and reboots most often do exactly that.

Movies based on characters and stories that are well-known, such as those in comic books ("The Avengers" and "The Amazing Spider-Man"), or games ("Battleship"), film sequels ("Men in Black 3"), remakes ("Total Recall") and best-selling books ("What To Expect When You're Expecting") reach audiences of built-in fans that typically turn out in droves.

Book-to-film titles like "The Hunger Games" and "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" already have helped push movie ticket sales up 14 percent this year to $3.3 billion. Theater attendance is up 17 percent giving box office watchers reason to think the summer will top last year's $4.4 billion in seasonal revenues.

"With the attendance increase, more moviegoers have been exposed to the trailers of the upcoming summer movies so there is more awareness," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of Hollywood.com.

"Then to have the gold standard of the superhero world on top of a new 'Men in Black,' 'Battleship' and a new Pixar movie among other things, we could be looking at the first $4.5 billion summer," he added.

ACTION AND ALIENS

Summer kicks off with "The Avengers" combining popular Marvel characters such as Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America among others into one adventure film that has so much pent-up demand box office watchers think its opening weekend sales could top $160 million in the United States and Canada.

Internationally, the film already has pulled in $178 million since opening last Wednesday in 39 markets.

"Everyone has been anticipating getting these popular superheroes in one particular place to see - first of all, how they'll get along, and second, what kind of force they become when they are one," the film's Samuel L. Jackson told Reuters.

The studios hope "Avengers" will set the tone for other comic book flicks to follow including "The Amazing Spider-Man" (July 3), a franchise reboot with Andrew Garfield taking the crime fighter role from Tobey Maguire, and the third installment of director Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise, "The Dark Knight Rises" (July 20th).

On May 25, for the first time in 15 years, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprise their roles as secret Agent J and Agent K who track aliens living on Earth to make sure they don't get out of hand in "Men in Black 3."

"It's a good summer movie," director Barry Sonnenfeld told Reuters. "It's not overly deep. It's the Will Smith you want to see - he's funny and charming. Tommy Lee Jones is very dry. This time you can expect time travel (with Josh Brolin playing a young Agent K) and at the end, you understand much more about their relationship over the last 15 years."

Aliens wreak havoc throughout the summer in films as "Battleship," (May 18) based on the board game of the same name, "Prometheus" (June 8), Ridley Scott's is-it-or-isn't-it prequel to "Alien," and the comedy "Neighborhood Watch" (July 27) starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill.

The fighting keeps going in sequels "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" (June 29) and "The Expendables 2" (August 17).

And a double reboot, of sorts, takes place on August 3 when Colin Farrell takes over Arnold Schwarzenegger's role in "Total Recall," which opens alongside Jeremy Renner breathing new life into a non-Matt Damon "Bourne" film, "The Bourne Legacy."

Even women get in on the action. Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron battle each other in "Snow White and the Huntsman" (June 1). Family-friendly Pixar joins the fray, too, introducing for the first time a female lead character - a young Scottish warrior - in the animated "Brave" (June 22).

"It seems in the wake of the box office success of 'Twilight' and now 'The Hunger Games,' female audiences wants something with a little more bite to it," said Dave Karger, movie writer for Entertainment Weekly magazine.

Still, traditional offerings aimed at women remain important for summer alternative programming, and this year sees the ensemble comedy "What To Expect When You're Expecting" (May 18) starring Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez, romantic comedy "Hope Springs" with Meryl Streep (August 10), and musical drama "Sparkle" starring the late Whitney Houston and former "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks (August 17).

KIDS AND COMEDY

Family films also blanket the season, as is typical, because the studios expect air-conditioned theaters to lure moms, dads and kids on hot summer days. In addition to "Brave," there are several familiar characters embarking on new adventures in films such as "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," (June 8) and "Ice Age: Continental Drift" (July 13).

Comedy always finds a place in summertime, too, with many big-name stars tickling fan funnybones. Johnny Depp reteams with long-time collaborator Tim Burton on "Dark Shadows" (May 11), Sacha Baron Cohen introduces a new outrageous character with "The Dictator" (May 16) and Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg team up for "That's My Boy" (June 15).

Even politics, typically serious business, plays for laughs with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis starring as political rivals in "The Campaign" (August 10) directed by Jay Roach.

"Politics has become so insanely rough, the political ads are so full of half-truths and manipulations, we thought it would be interesting to make a movie about the making of candidates," Galafianakis told Reuters. "Obviously we heightened it for comedic effect."

Finally, on June 15, a film version of the smash Broadway musical "Rock of Ages" debuts in theaters boasting a cast including Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand rocking out to music from the '80s.

"It's the perfect musical for guys," said director Adam Shankman, who also made "Hairspray." "The music is all classic rock. It's literally the only musical in history that every straight man will know all the words to when they walk in."

(Reporting By Zorianna Kit; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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