Image Credit: Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios; Michael Muller/Marvel Studios; Nels IsraelsonDo you love superheroes? I mean seriously love superheroes? Then 2011 is your year, my friend. Today marks the long-delayed release date of The Green Hornet, and this summer we’ll be treated to four major comic book movies: Thor, Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, and Captain America. All of those movies are positively begging audiences to love them enough to qualify for a trilogy, and Thor and Captain America are both essential cogs in Marvel’s beautiful vision of an Avengers movie mega-franchise. But considering that all of these films are based on characters who aren’t very well-known to the masses, it’s worth asking: Is 2011 the year that superheroes achieve total cinematic domination? Or is it the year that the superhero genre stumbles?

The last time there were this many superheroes in theaters was 2008, when The Dark Knight and Iron Man dominated the box office (and our hearts), The Incredible Hulk and Punisher: War Zone tried (and failed) to reboot two beloved characters with troubled screen pasts, Hellboy 2 set a new benchmark for superhero surrealism, and The Spirit set a new benchmark for being the worst thing ever. (Not to mention Hancock and Superhero Movie, which both spoofed the superhero genre.)

The difference is that, besides Iron Man, most of the 2008 releases were continuations: sequels to, or reboots of, existing properties. The big releases of 2011 are mostly unknown quantities among the general population. The average John Q. Moviegoer barely even knows who Thor and Green Lantern are. Captain America has lots of name recognition, but he’s less immediately beloved than a Batman or a Spider-Man. (The squareness factor hurts, too: People, he’s wearing a flag.)

And X-Men: First Class comes weighted with a severe WTF factor: lacking all of the actors (and most of the characters) who made the original X trilogy the first major success of the modern superhero era, it reads on paper like X-Men: All The Mutants We Didn’t Couldn’t Fit Into ‘Wolverine.It’s an expensive gamble, and the studios seem to sense that there isn’t much name recognition with these characters. Just look at the bizarrely similar trailers for Thor and Green Lantern. Both of them race through an almost nonsensical amount of origin-dumping — space! special effects! magic! Blake Lively flying a plane! — and, at least in the theaters I’ve been in lately, have lead to widespread audience confusion.

Listen, I was the only kid on my block and possibly the only kid in my entire tri-State area who collected Thor and Green Lantern comics. (I even collected all the spin-offs. Someday, there will be a Thunderstrike movie, and I will cry for my lost youth.) No one wants these films to be awesome more than I do. X-Men: First Class will almost certainly lead to an endless amount of puns — “More like X-Men: Economy Plus!” — but what little information we’ve heard about the movie makes it sound like the craziest thing since Hellboy 2. And if Captain America can make the superhero movie/war movie mash-up thing work, it could be incredible.

2011 won’t be the end of superheroes, no matter what happens. Look forward a year, and you see an embarrassment of riches: in 2012, we’ll have a Batman movie, a Spider-Man movie, an Avengers movie, and possible even Wolverine and Superman. It will be monstrous. Geeks will have nothing left to complain about: They will have inherited the earth. But those are all blue-chip franchises. The question of 2011 is: Will audiences go see any attractive-looking dude in a colorful costume? And if so, when will the movie version of Hawkman be coming out?

The Dark Knight Rises
  • Movie
  • 164 minutes