The beginning of every summer seems to divide American moviegoers into two groups: those who anticipate the coming onslaught of blockbusters with silly grins and open wallets, and those who run for cover, or at least get better acquainted with their video stores.

Indeed, this summer’s parade of sequels has already begun with X2: X-Men United, which sold about $85 million worth of tickets in its first weekend. On the face of it, X2–with its laughably generic title–seems like another overblown, insanely expensive and eminently disposable pop product. But what might surprise the few people who have thus far managed to avoid this film is that, first of all, it’s pretty good, and secondly, this intelligently conceived film could lend itself to a more positive understanding of the blockbuster phenomenon.

To be sure, there are few conceivable responses other than a fearful shudder to such fare as Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines (July 2), American Wedding (aka American Pie 3, due out Aug. 1) or Bad Boys 2 (July 18). And, let’s not forget about Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (July 25), 2 Fast 2 Furious (due out June 6, sans Vin Diesel) and Jeepers Creepers 2 (Aug. 29).

The conventional wisdom is that the annual surfeit of sequels is a symptom of Hollywood’s creative exhaustion and risk aversion. Though there is ample justification for this point of view, it is also true that throughout history, certain characters and plots have been recycled over and over again. Mythical figures like Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Orestes and Cassandra were trotted out repeatedly in the heroic plays and poems of ancient Greece and, thousands of years later, characters that would turn up in works by the likes of Shakespeare and James Joyce.

Surveying the summer movie landscape, it can seem that our Homer, our Aeschylus, is a man named Stan Lee, publisher of Marvel Comics and the originator of The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, not to mention Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. This man, now in his eighties, has lived to see his comic book creations take over the movies. Spider-Man was the biggest hit of last year, and this month’s X2 is the first smash hit of the summer. Then, on June 20, The Hulk, directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) will open nationwide. Next summer, they’ll be a Spider-Man sequel and a Fantastic Four movie (directed by Raleigh native Peyton Reed, whose Down With Love opens this Friday). Taken together, Lee’s characters inhabit an Olympus of idealized American might that sits on a seismically unstable substrate of emotional and physical vulnerability. Lee’s characters, like the poor tragic Greek heroes, have the worst human failings to match their immortal strengths.

Furthermore, it’s possible to argue that the films based on Lee’s work are performing the same ritualistic function that Greek drama played so many centuries ago. Just as Athenians used the safety of their amphitheater to contemplate the unspeakable–rape and regicide, incest and infanticide–so too are summer blockbusters an opportunity to rehash our country’s worst fears. X2, for example, opens with an assault on the White House, with the terrified president cowering beneath a phalanx of overmatched Secret Service agents. The kicker is that the assailant–Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler–is a good and religious mutant who is seeking justice for his people. So here, in this film in which there are two factions of mutants–one benign and the other belligerant–who are harassed by humans, the conflict takes place in an alternate universe, a hypothetical enactment of scary American impulses. But only in the context of a superhero popcorn picture is it possible for the culture to imagine anti-government insurgents, terrorists who attack the very foundations of our national identity, with a modicum of sympathy. Likewise, the forthcoming The Matrix Reloaded (May 15) should be a paranoid contemplation of a virtual reality future in which it’s entirely uncertain which of our perceptions of reality can actually be trusted (and it goes without saying that our government can never be trusted).

If the superhero blockbuster tradition (and yes, it’s becoming an indelible feature of American culture) can seem analogous to ancient Greek tradition, the plethora of comedy sequels also speaks to the natural desire to see beloved characters return time and again. It has never bothered anyone to see, for example, the Marx Brothers playing essentially the same characters in Horse Feathers that they do in Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Today, the Marx Brothers, and the vaudeville culture that spawned them, is gone, but we have our own energetic talents who have captured audiences with their finely honed shtick, such as Reese Witherspoon and Jim Carrey.

For those taking stock of gender progress, the most scrutinized comedy sequel will be Witherspoon’s second go-round as Elle Woods, improbable Harvard Law School grad, in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde. This film opens July 2, and places li’l Reese squarely opposite the new flick from a certain 55-year-old former bodybuilder and putative California gubernatorial candidate. Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines, once again protecting baby J.C., otherwise known as John Connor (Nick Stahl, subbing for Edward Furlong). It will be fascinating to see if the $15 million girl, headlining her own comedy franchise, can hold her own against the proven box office brawn of the $30 million ahn-droid. (However, those of us who prefer Witherspoon’s pre-stardom work in indie films may prefer to look forward to next year when she’ll play the amoral, indefatigable Becky Sharp in Mira Nair’s rendering of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.)

Jim Carrey, for his part, isn’t doing a sequel this summer. Instead, in Bruce Almighty (May 25), he’ll play a man suddenly imbued with godly omnipotence. (See? Even in comedies, it’s all about superpowers in the multiplex summer imagination.) On June 13, however, Carrey can join everyone else in queuing up (or not) for Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, the “prequel” to the less intensified predecessor. Two unknowns, Eric Christian Olsen and Derek armstrong, will take over the roles originated by Carrey and Jeff Daniels.

And for those who crave more blockbuster choices, there is indeed more on offer this summer. On June 27, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore will band together to kick more bad-butt (including that of cameo bad-ass Demi Moore) in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. On July 11, there’ll be another movie inspired by comic books, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, starring Connery, Sean Connery. Then there’s Seabiscuit, a Rocky-like tale of an underestimated racehorse. This film, which opens July 25 with Tobey Maguire starring, may be the dark horse of the summer because of its old-fashioned, non-superhero appeal. On August 1, the cinematic consecration of the J.Lo-Ben Affleck merger will hit the screens in the form of Gigli, a crime drama that will also star two slightly more sentient actors: Al Pacino and Christopher Walken.

For those who are looking for non-blockbuster alternatives this summer, there are, happily, some releases to look forward to. One very promising film is The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich’s directorial debut. This film, which stars the very talented Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), is scheduled to open May 23 and dramatizes the political turmoil in a fictitious Latin American country that strongly resembles Peru in the days of the Shining Path. Also coming soon is the sneakily affecting Chaos, a French comedy-melodrama that examines the consequences of a fateful meeting between a middle-class white woman and an Algerian prostitute. Another promised film is Divine Intervention, from the Palestinian director Elias Sulieman, which has been making a lot of noise on the festival circuit. Also opening is the long-awaited release of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past, which features a stylized mise en scene that is reportedly reminiscent of Far From Heaven. Elsewhere this summer, the cult director Alan Rudolph (Choose Me, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) will hopefully come to Triangle screens in August with The Secret Lives of Dentists. This comedy of a philandering dentist is based on The Age of Grief, a novella by Jane Smiley (whose latest novel Good Faith has just been published to excellent reviews).

This summer will also feature two promising titles that star the up-and-coming Kate Hudson. First, there’s Alex and Emma, a (fictitious) film that’s inspired by writer and compulsive gambler Fyodor Dostoevsky’s professional and amorous relationship with his secretary. Later, Hudson will co-star with the divine Naomi Watts in the latest Merchant-Ivory effort, an adaptation of Le Divorce, Diane Johnson’s best-seller from a few years back.

Summer also promises the release of several Sundance sensations, including two that won jury prizes in their respective categories. First up is Andrew Jarecki’s shockingly voyeuristic documentary of a Long Island family in crisis, Capturing the Friedmans, which should be coming our way in June. Then, presently promised for August is the grand jury prize winner for narrative films, American Splendor. This remarkable study of the comic book writer Harvey Pekar blends fiction and documentary techniques, and is a must for fans of Crumb. And speaking of cult artists, look for Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns). It’s a documentary about two musicians named John who just might be giants.

Finally, there are several Sundance-approved films due out this summer that have North Carolina connections. First up is Camp, tentatively scheduled for August. This film, well-received at Sundance, seems to be a Fame-meets-Meatballs affair. Tarheel music lovers will want to know that the film features a sizable acting role by the redoubtable Don Dixon, a member of Arrogance and producer of early albums by R.E.M. and other seminal Southern bands from the 1980s. Another film that is promised for the summer is the intriguing Civil Brand. Directed by North Carolina School of the Arts grad Neema Barnette, the film stars Mos Def and tackles the ongoing scandal of prison labor being used for private commerce. Also coming soon is Raising Victor Vargas, a sweetly innocent tale of Dominican kids coming of age in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with cinematography by NCSA grad Tim Orr (who also worked on All the Real Girls).

Blockbusters and art films: they’ll all be here this summer. But, don’t lose your video store card–just in case. EndBlock