While we're still a ways off from congregating en masse at the local theater for superheroes, in our 'three to see' weekly feature, we're celebrating that time in years past, and what was opening specifically on this particular weekend.
Traditionally, this weekend and next would be the official kickoff to the summer slate of blockbusters. Here, then, are three historic superhero films that opened at the end of April/beginning of May, and are very much worth a rewatch on streaming platforms.
1. The Avengers (U.S. Release: May 4, 2012)
The opening weekend of "The Avengers" eight years ago this weekend was a historic moment in the history of cinema.
It was the first time a movie made more than $200 million in a single weekend at the U.S. box office. And it achieved something that – at the time – seemed impossible. It provided a playground for multiple iconic, larger-than-life superheroes with their own movie franchises (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, plus Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury) to not only exist together, but thrive together.
It should not have worked. But somehow, miracle moviemaker Joss Whedon actually created a miracle – the film is action-packed, thrilling, absolutely hilarious, and even moving. "The Avengers," the finale of the first phase for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would set the standard for all superhero films to follow (and surprisingly, many of them would come close to that bar, and some would say surpass it).
This is the "Star Wars" moment for the next generation. And no matter how many times it's watched, it works.
2. Iron Man (U.S. Release: May 2, 2008)
Only a dozen years ago, "Iron Man" started it all off in the MCU. By the time it was released, superhero movies were already a thing. Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan had all created mega-million blockbusters with, respectively, "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and Dark Knight franchises.
However, director Jon Favreau's "Iron Man," and especially Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, kicked things up to an entirely different level. Intelligence and humor and emotion, often all at the same time, were now the tone of the day. Superhero escapism now emphasized the entertainment factor, and incorporated storytelling that would overlap with other larger-than-life superheroes and plotlines.
"Iron Man" establishes the MCU as the most literal adaption of comic books yet – one that sacrifices none of the sophistication of modern moviemaking, but is unafraid to lean into its serialized origins, and uses the big screen as a larger-than-life canvas for a never-ending series – movies as big screen television episodes. And one where Robert Downey Jr.'s brilliantly confident performance, and Favreau's assured filmmaking, demand everyone else step up their game.
3. Spider-Man (U.S. Release: May 3, 2002)
When "Spider-Man" opened in 2002, the superhero movie as blockbuster was still very much in its early stages. True, "X-Men" had outperformed at the box office only a couple of years earlier, and "X2" would be released a year after Spidey. But Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, and the entire MCU were still years away.
Plus, "Spider-Man" as a massive commercial product on the big screen was still sort of an experiment. Director Sam Raimi didn't have much luck creating a superhero franchise years earlier with the Liam Neeson-starring "Dark Man." While his street cred was solid after the cult hits "Evil Dead," "Evil Dead 2," and "Army of Darkness," this Spidey franchise starter for Sony Pictures was a bit of a gamble.
Star Tobey Maguire (who's since faded back into obscurity) was not a bankable star yet, and love interest Kirsten Dunst, villain Willem Dafoe, and future villain James Franco were all more actors than A-list movie stars.
So, with only an intriguing marketing campaign, a friendly neighborhood brand name webslinger, and most importantly, a solid film where all the elements came together, the first "Spider-Man" absolutely knocked it out of the park. Maguire was fantastic as the high-schooler turned reluctant hero, and Raimi tells a compelling story with great-for-the-time visual effects, and plenty of sly humor. It kept the superhero genre moving fast towards its ever-expanding future, and it's still a great entertainment all to itself. It was also the first film to make over $100 million in a single weekend.