Is This the Best Superhero Summer Ever?

[caption id="attachment_125801" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Marvel/Disney"]The Avengers[/caption]

I know I'm still basking in the afterglow of seeing "The Avengers" (it was teh awesomez!) and I haven't even seen "The Dark Knight Rises" yet, but I feel confident in the following statement: 2012 is the best superhero movie summer ever. And it is likely to stay that way for some time.

I'm not making radical pronouncements here – I'm not saying these are the best superhero movies of all time (though some distance may prove that to be the case) but as a masterwork in programming, 2012 attains a level of purity that comes around once in a lifetime.

Comic books and superhero movies, well, they do best when they play to their strengths – and what do we expect from these modern mythologies more than clearly drawn distinctions? Good and bad, black and white, Power Girl and Zatanna. What Summer 2012 is giving us are the two extremes of superhero movies made by absolute masters.

'The Avengers'

[caption id="attachment_126096" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Marvel/Disney"]The Avengers[/caption]

When I first learned that Marvel Studios was building toward this team-up of Earth's Mightiest Heroes I was among the first to scoff. No way it could work. Too many big Hollywood stars – how could a movie like that could get made? And in just a few years? Plus, it would baffle the average viewer – who is the main character here?

The Marvel films, however, deftly (for the most part) weaved its greater arc through the individual films, making "The Avengers" a natural conclusion to these stories. The result: tremendous, buoyant filmmaking. Care of the remarkable casting that's been nurtured and the crafty Joss Whedon dialogue, it's just really comfortable spending time with these walking, talking action figures. It is exuberant fun to get them together for a full pile-on and to let everyone interact with everyone else. An image I have seared in my mind is Thor atop of the Chrysler building, summoning Asgardian lightning, the entire screen glowing white.

The flip side to all this is very dark.

'The Dark Knight Rises'

[caption id="attachment_125147" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Warner Bros."][/caption]

As if plotted by the great Trickster Loki himself (or perhaps the ghost of the Joker) I got home from "The Avengers" and was spazzing out about it over Twitter when something unexpected happened. "The Dark Night Rises'" third trailer trailer dropped.

Featuring clean, close voice-over underneath disconnected painterly images, Christopher Nolan seems to be testing himself to show once again that the superhero film can be a work of art. The snapshots are haunting – silent explosions taking down bridges as children look on, nightmarish gasps for breath in a dark tunnel, the surrealism of a football field falling in on itself.

Wisely, there's not much of the actual plot revealed in the trailer (do we really need to be sold?) but the real story is something outside the film. This is an auteur, a true visionary, giving us his final peek at his last superhero film. Once Nolan makes nine zillion dollars on this my guess is he'll continue working on groundbreaking original stories like "Inception" and stay out of the adaptation business.

So there you have it – light and dark. The showmanship of two impossible movies. One a fun singalong of great characters ribbing one another as they zip across the sky fighting aliens, the other the cry of an exalted artisan pushing the boundaries of his craft and the genre.

Why This Summer Wins

The balance is what sets 2012 apart.

2008 may have had MORE superhero films ("Iron Man," "Hancock," "The Incredible Hulk," "Helboy II: The Golden Army" and "The Dark Knight") and 1980 may have been the year I may have had my mind turned to tapioca when I saw "Superman II" with my father, but this is the pinnacle year.

It is unlikely we'll have an innovator like Nolan in full ownership of a property like this again, and it will will take years of groundwork before we get an unveiling of a new team-up like "The Avengers."

(Considering the five years from "Iron Man" to the "Avengers," it won't be til 2018 until we see a "Justice League," and that's assuming Warner Bros. can be as spry as Marvel or that "Man of Steel" is even laying groundwork in that direction – which I'm not convinced is actually the case.)

Now that you are armed with this knowledge, there's only one thing for you to do – go to the movies.

Again and again and again.

Come back every Thursday for more intergalactic musings on Planet Fanboy and follow its fearless leader Jordan Hoffman on Twitter!