Everyone has their own little niche in Trivialand: some of us can recite every Oscar nomination dating back to the 1940s, and some of us are good with classic Star Trek references (cough cough). Every now and then, our esoteric expertise comes back into vogue—like when Hollywood decides to reboot a beloved old series. Such cultural vindication is happening now for comic book lovers, as proven by the latest Spider-Man flick and, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet as these films enthrall old-school super fans (and gross billions of dollars), how are those of us without any comic-book-savvy going to get by?

Fear not! I’ve compiled a newbie’s guide to enjoying (and understanding!) comic book movies. Here’s how you, too, can become a valued citizen of Gotham, Metropolis, or what-have you.

Section One: Etiquette

1. Get into it! As with everything, a comic book movie is more fun if you allow yourself to get excited about the story. You’re about to butt heads with some great characters! THERE WILL BE COSTUMES AND MASKS AND CRAZY ABS! I’m not saying, ‘go pull out your cape for the midnight premiere’ (though don’t judge, this is super fun), but rather: don’t be the aloof friend who only tags along to the movie because there’s nothing else to do that Saturday. For a few hours, why not buy into the black and white, kid-tastic universe in which Superman can save the day?

2. However, once you’re in the theater, save your plot-related questions until the end. Word to the wise? No comic book fan likes a movie talker—the cinema is a fortress of solitude.

3. When confused, remember: there’s (usually) a comic book movie formula. Cling to this. Err, spoiler alert: in a big action flick, the first guy you see probably did it. The city will probably be saved. The romance is probably doomed. Notable exceptions abound, but if the assorted names of alien planets are fudging your hold on the details, remember this template and rejoice.

4. But even though there’s an essential comic book movie formula, no one is ever going to be glad that you blurted out, ‘OH, THE GUY IN THE MASK DID IT!’ in the middle of a crowded theater. See Number Two.

Section Two: Basic Breakdowns

Marvel vs. DC: the old-school Marvel universe (containing the X-Men, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The Avengers) is largely separate from the old-school DC universe (containing Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman). You shouldn’t be surprised to see various Marvel characters interact onscreen because they theoretically coexist; ditto to DC.

  • Marvel: Marvel characters are GENERALLY said to be more grounded in reality—in that they often rest on a spectrum of good and evil. Example: X-Men’s Magneto is kind of a villain, but then again, he has a good reason for feeling the way he does. Enter, pathos.
  • DC: DC characters, on the other hand, are GENERALLY said to be a bit more black and white. Example: Superman is supremely good. The forces he battles are often supremely evil. Enter, mythology.

Section Three: Groupings

1. The Avengers (in the current Whedon arrangement) are Captain America (Steve Rogers), Iron Man (Tony Stark), Hulk (Dr. Bruce Banner), Thor (. . .), Hawkeye (Clint Barton) and Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff). Not to be confused with. . .

2. The Fantastic Four are Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), Invisible Girl (Susan Storm), The Human Torch (Johnny Storm) and The Thing (Ben Grimm). Not to be confused with. . .

3. The X-Men. Hold on to Professor X (Charles Xavier), Magneto (Erik Lehnsherr), Wolverine (James “Logan” Howlett), Cyclops (Scott Summers) and Phoenix (Jean Grey). Everyone else comes and goes. Now remember: a lot of these groups can get jumbled together, because they exist under the same imprint. There’s a lot of character crossover in The Avengers movies, for instance. Don’t let it freak you out.

Section Four: Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why do some of these movies seem to contradict one another? Answer: All of the characters listed above (and others, like those in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy) appear in stories spanning 30-40 years of material. As a result, there isn’t one set story. Rather, there are dozens of splinters of comic book “canons,” which are like alternate histories—and in any given canon, our heroes have faced dozens of different villains, or formed a dozen different super-groups. Hollywood is currently mining tons of material to make movie adaptations, so for our idiot purposes, it’s best to treat each movie (or series of movies with the same actors) as its own individual unit. You’ll only get confused if you try to connect the dots.

2. What’s the deal with two Spider-Mans?
You see, the adjective-less Spider-Man refers to a comic book series that’s totally different from The Amazing Spider-Man, though there is some character crossover. Still confused? Then just hold on to visual cues: recall that Andrew Garfield is a totally different person from Tobey Maguire.

3. Where are all the awesome female heroines in these movies?
Good question. We need more. Anne Hathaway kinda nailed Catwoman in the last Batman. ScarJo’s Black Widow is likewise pretty impressive in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There’s also a Wonder Woman movie in the works starring Israeli actress Gal Godot. But obviously, we’re low on the ladies and that has to change.

Now go forth, and may you impress your comic-aficionado friends. Have fun! Don’t think too much! Oh, and tell ’em Ultron ‘sentcha.

(They might be impressed.)

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