Today in Movie History: May 4

We’re sticking with Marvel today because… well because one of the biggest superhero movies of all time opened today. 2012’s The Avengers turned an already successful franchise — three franchises technically — into something entirely new. Not since the Universal horror cycle in the 1940s had we seen anything quite like it, and Universal couldn’t dream of accomplishing something on the scale that director Joss Whedon accomplished. The MCU wouldn’t be the force it is without this hurricane changing the landscape forever.

68 years previous, we find Gaslight, George Cukor’s unbearable suspense masterpiece about a woman whose husband is trying to drive her mad. The term “gaslighting” stems from the film, and watching Charles Boyer — an actor known largely for his suave lover roles at the time — torture Ingrid Bergman in the most insidious manner possible still holds a powerful punch. (It also earned Bergman one of her three Academy Awards.) Gaslight opened today in 1944.

Finally, the third spot on the podium belongs to Sixteen Candles, which helped define high school pictures for a generation and launched the career of teen movie guru John Hughes. His formula was simple: understand that, when you’re in high school, forgetting your birthday feels like the end of the world, and mine humor from a sympathetic place instead of telling those crazy kids to grow up and look at the big picture. Sixteen Candles opened today in 1984.


Today in Movie History: May 3

It’s a quieter day than yesterday, but once again, it’s dominated by Marvel. Though Blade started the comic-book giant’s cinematic ascendance, and the first X-Men movie gave them their first taste of blockbuster-level success, it took Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man to really kick it into high gear. Buoyed by Raimi’s lifelong love of the character, a great cast, and one of the most iconic kisses in movie history, it show the world that Marvel could deliver the colossal international hits. It opened today in 2002.

The other Marvel release today is Iron Man 3, which hit theaters five years ago in 2013. As the first MCU release following the unprecedented success of The Avengers, it ratchets back the scale in favor of a more personal story, helping stabilize the MCU and assure everyone that this particular freight train had what it took to last.

Finally, for the more genteel crowd, there’s Truly Madly Deeply, Anthony Minghella’s supernatural romance that still sets hearts a-swoon. It opened today in 1990.


Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review

You won’t find a more critic-proof movie this year than Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I’m including Episode 7 in that equation. While I’m pleased to report that it’s a solid piece of summer popcorn, that assessment doesn’t matter. Everyone on the planet will have seen it by Sunday, and most of them will be happy with the results. You need more? Stan Lee says, “Excelsior.” If that doesn’t get you bouncing off the walls, you’ve clearly come to the wrong franchise.

Granted, a certain amount of nitpicking is inevitable – we’ve reached saturation point with the Marvel movies, and what once seemed groundbreaking now looks like par for the course – but it’s hard to imagine anyone holding its minor shortcomings against it. A breathless pace is almost a necessity considering how much director Joss Whedon wants to show us, and his masterful ability to keep the balls in the air helps him balance the glut of onscreen characters with deceptive ease. We saw that trick in the original Avengers, and what it loses in novelty value here, it more than makes up for in sheer technical skill.

Whedon actually ups his game in that department by adding numerous new figures to an already crowded field. They start with the genocidal robot Ultron (James Spader), created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to protect the world but – in true Frankenstein fashion – developing his own ideas about permanent solutions. He recruits a pair of genetically engineered super figures (DON’T SAY MUTANTS!!!) with a grudge against Stark to help him: the madness-inducing Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the supersonic Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Johnson can’t quite top Evan Peters’ version of the same character from Days of Future Past last year, but his track-suited Euro-trash makes an oddly perfect match for Olsen’s spooky Goth queen, and their shaky alliance with Ultron aptly reflects their original comic-book evolution from evil to good.

Ultron himself does decently too, though he’s less vibrant than he should be and his disturbing affability tends to undercut his status as a threat. Age of Ultron really had a chance to take him somewhere interesting (Mary Shelley oozes out of every corner of this thing), but it chose superficial charm instead. There’s nothing wrong with that – and Spader knocks it out of the park as always – but it does represent chips left uncashed on the table.

Whedon makes up for that with the guys on the other side: comprising not only the six “core” Avengers, but comparative periphery figures like War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). It gets damn crowded in there, but Whedon’s sharp dialogue and keen grasp of personality never falter. The formula isn’t hard – a kick-ass fight scene followed by either the whole gang bouncing off each other, or two characters on their own figuring out what’s up between them – but the details involved take a lot of work to look so right.

The best of them stem from Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, forced to confront the ghosts of her past by the Witch’s mind games while striking up a surprisingly tender relationship with Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk. But she has to share the spotlight with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who has his own nuances to explore, and with the newcomer Vision (Paul Bettany) who forms a serene yin to Ultron’s manic yang. Throw in Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) vision of Armageddon and Captain America (Chris Evans) trying to hold everyone together, and everyone gets a chance to shine without trying our patience.

As I said at the beginning, that’s expected at this point, and any Marvel movie that doesn’t deliver the basics as good as this one would be cast from the walls in disgrace. But the series has lost some of its freshness – inevitable when you give us 11 moves in 7 years, though no less noticeable here – and while it knows how to leave us happy, the ability to truly blow our socks off may be gone for good.

And that’s not necessarily a problem. As the Marvel juggernaut rolls on, we can see the secret to its success all the more clearly. The people running this thing understand the core appeal of comic books: the stories and the characters yes, but also the way you used to feel when the new issues showed up in the store. That sense of excitement, that potential cool just waiting to be unleashed… those new covers on the shelf promised it all, and while they didn’t always deliver, the sense of elation when they did was more than enough to keep you coming back for more.

At the end of the day, all Marvel has done is transfer that feeling to the big screen, where we pay 12 bucks every six months instead of 2 bucks every thirty days. The only difference is scope and medium: the emotion itself remains unchanged. Yet for all its simplicity, no other movie series figured that equation out before they did. As far as quality goes, Avengers: Age of Ultron stands somewhere in the middle of the Marvel pack. But that still makes for a damn good time, and it never tarnishes the core concept that keeps this franchise going. DC has yet to crack the code, and right now I’m not sure it ever will. But with their crosstown rivals firing on all cylinders, it really doesn’t matter. The Avengers’ latest adventure is everything fans could hope for, and more importantly, it leaves us breathlessly waiting for more.