It's hard to be a hero

Remember when popcorn movie heroes only had to worry about beating their nemeses? Now they have to also overcome their neuroses. Bullets may bounce off their chests, but the real challenge is flying high enough to overcome relationship problems, mental-health challenges and, scariest of all, reaching AARP age. Here's a look at some of the summer's conflicted good guys and their season of discontent.


'Iron Man'

Opened: May 2

The Hero: Iron Man is another of the classic Marvel Comics heroes, though not as well known as Spider-Man or the Hulk. He's basically a weapons tycoon who has a sweet, high-tech flying suit with more firepower than NATO. Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, the man in the iron mask.

The Flaw: Narcissism issues. Stark is a crass billionaire playboy who parties hard and has zero guilt about the blood and pain inflicted on the world by his lucrative weapons business -- but that changes when he gets injured in Afghanistan and is taken hostage by a militant group.

The Enemy: Jeff Bridges is Obadiah Stane, the bald, sinister advisor to Stark who takes over his company during the kidnapping and then dons his own suit of armor to become the Iron Monger (who comes up with these names?).

The Lowdown: There is no movie this summer that has the fan-boy audience more geeked than "Iron Man." Downey's hero is rakish and funny, the special effects look strong and director Jon Favreau ("Elf," "Zathura") has romanced genre fans for more than a year to win them over. This one looks huge.


'Indiana Jones and the

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'

Opens: May 22

The Hero: Harrison Ford is back in the hat.

The Flaw: Aging issues. It could have been called "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Metamucil." Ford turns 66 in July and his roguish archaeologist is becoming, well, a bit of a relic. The filmmakers answer with a wink: In the trailer, Indy swings on his whip, misses a landing and crashes hard. "Damn, I thought that was closer," he mutters. Hey, it's fun rooting for the grizzled old guy! He's like Brett Favre with a whip.

The Enemy: Cate Blanchett is the black-clad Soviet agent Irina Spalko. "She came on set with her character fully formed," Ford told The Times. "She could have done this sort of exaggerated Russian accent, but she took it in a different direction."

The Lowdown: It's been 19 years since the last Indy film, as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg searched for the right screenplay. Karen Allen is back, Shia LaBeouf is in (perhaps as Indy's secret son?) and the trailer crackles with fun, so don't be surprised if it's the biggest movie of the year.


'The Incredible Hulk'

Opens: June 13

The Hero: The un-jolly green giant is back. No, not Shrek. It's the Hulk, the mouthwash-colored Mr. Hyde from Marvel Comics. Edward Norton stars (and, we hear, did quite a bit of script rewriting) in this story of Dr. Bruce Banner, the gamma guy who undergoes a strange change in times of duress.

The Flaw: This guy has some serious anger issues.

The Enemy: Tim Roth is Emil Blonsky, a cruel British special-forces agent who doses up on gamma radiation to transform himself into a huge, nasty thing called the Abomination. Uh, the Abomination? Finally, a summer movie that helps the kids with their SAT words.

The Lowdown: Ang Lee's 2003 film "Hulk" was a glum affair with a monster that looked as if it had wandered out of a 1990s Sega game. You can imagine there is plenty of skepticism about this re-boot, but director Louis Leterrier (the "Transporter" films) is going for a more stirring spirit and fan-pleasing action. Insiders tell us that Norton "hulks out" in the first five minutes of the film.



Opens: July 2

The Hero: Hancock is a surly superhero portrayed by the usually sunny Will Smith who, in Hollywood box-office terms, is pretty much a real-life superhero called Mr. July.

The Flaw: It's a long list, with substance-abuse issues at the top. He's an alcoholic. He's homeless. He's rude, crude and reckless. He also looks as if he smells bad. "Hancock" kind of looks like "Bad Santa" meets "The Incredibles."

The Enemy: He's his own worst enemy, or didn't you catch that yet?

The Lowdown: Peter Berg ("The Kingdom") directs. The premise has Jason Bateman as a publicist who tries to rehabilitate Hancock's image, only to have the "hero" hit on his wife -- which perhaps isn't a surprise since she is portrayed by Charlize Theron. Smith may make this a hit, but don't be surprised if the movie doesn't fly. The superhero comedy sector is quickly running out of steam: "The Incredibles" certainly lived up to its name, but don't forget "Superhero Movie," "Sky High," "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" and "Zoom."


'Hellboy II: The Golden Army'

Opens: July 11

The Hero: Ron Perlman is back as that lovable demon-spawn Hellboy.

The Flaw: Father issues. Not only is this son-of-a-demon the color of a blood blister, but he was born in the fire pits of hell. He is also embarrassed by his horns, which he files down to nubs. Hellboy needs a hug.

The Enemy: Elf, goblins and other displaced beasties of yore decide they want Earth back, and they have a gleaming army of mechanical soldiers on their side. Hellboy also must contend with the Angel of Death, a winged, androgynous horror portrayed by Doug Jones (who also reprises his role as Hellboy's fish-faced pal Abe Sapien).

The Lowdown: Director Guillermo del Toro is back and you can see visual echoes of his creepy and triumphant "Pan's Labyrinth" in this new "Hellboy," which was filmed in Budapest, Hungary, and London. The franchise jumps from Columbia to Universal this time, but thanks to the hellacious trailer, genre fans are back on board already.


'The Dark Knight'

Opens: July 18

The Hero: Christian Bale is back for a second turn as the vengeful Batman.

The Flaw: Talk about an American psycho. As a kid, Bruce Wayne watched his parents get gunned down. As an adult, he's a vigilante who dresses up as a flying bat -- a buff Bernhard Goetz channeling Dracula. He also has a slippery hold on reality: Bats doesn't even notice that his gal-pal Rachel was played by Katie Holmes in the last movie and Maggie Gyllenhaal this time around.

The Enemy: It's the late Heath Ledger as the deranged Joker and Aaron Eckhart as the disfigured Two-Face. Cillian Murphy also pops up again as Scarecrow. Director Christopher Nolan says lawman Harvey Dent's transformation into Two-Face is the foundation of the story, while the mysterious Joker "cuts through the film like a force of nature."

The Lowdown: Ledger's death in January (an accidental overdose of prescription drugs) is an ominous shadow, but the film's team is already braced for the morbidly curious. Says Eckhart: "To me, the more people that see the film -- and see Heath's amazing performance in it -- all the better."

-- Geoff Boucher

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