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The 10 Best Start-of-Summer-Movie-Season Films of the 21st Century

There’s still a misconception among some that summer movie season starts around Memorial Day, the big three-day weekend that, for most humans, is when the warm-weather months officially get going. But passionate filmgoers know better: For decades now, the first weekend in May has been the launching pad for the season’s first potential blockbuster. (More recently, that timetable has occasionally been amended, with event films coming at us as early as late April.) 

This year, the summer movie carousel kicks off with “The Fall Guy,” which has gotten great reviews and is expected to make a lot of money. That’s a very good thing: Because of the pandemic, Hollywood’s blockbuster season has been sleepy, with industry observers hoping for a strong summer, even if there’s no apparent "Barbenheime"r in sight. With that in mind, “The Fall Guy” very much plays like a “The movies are back, baby” crowd-pleasing action-comedy, getting you in the mood for all the would-be event films on the horizon.

To celebrate, I’ve ranked the 10 best films of the 21st century that were the official launch of their particular summer movie season. In one case, I cheated a little, including two movies from 2011, one of which opened April 29 and the other the following weekend—they served as twin launches for that year. Also, just to be clear, I didn’t include any stellar indies that also happened to open in early May—the idea is that this list pays tribute to the four-quadrant, big-budget spectacles that define the season. And if you’re looking for “Avengers: Infinity War” or “Avengers: Endgame,” they just missed the cut. But don’t worry, Marvel fans: Your superheroes are well-represented elsewhere, starting with No. 10.  

10. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (2023)

Both Marvel and the box office needed some good news when the final chapter of James Gunn’s “Guardians” trilogy hit theaters in 2023. The once-invincible comic book studio had dealt with a series of setbacks, most recently the weak commercial performance and lousy reviews for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” and theaters were still struggling in the wake of COVID. “Vol. 3” didn’t disappoint, becoming one of Marvel’s rare legit blockbusters in recent years and serving as a proper send-off for Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, and the rest of the crew. After the very funny first two chapters, Gunn even introduced a little darkness, telling Rocket’s disturbing backstory in harrowing, poignant detail. The bad news for Marvel is that the studio hasn’t produced anything nearly as compelling since—and now Gunn is off overseeing DC Films’ redo.  

9. “Thor” (2011)

When Marvel began making movies in the mid-Aughts, one of their selling points was that they were more lighthearted than the “Why so serious?” tone of rival DC’s brooding (but brilliant) Christopher Nolan Batman films. Still, it was risky how downright goofy “Thor” was. Essentially a god-out-of-water comedy, the film starred newcomer Chris Hemsworth as the titular Asgardian. He is banished to Earth by his royal father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and meets beautiful scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Director Kenneth Branagh leaned into the appealing silliness of comic books, throwing lots of canted angles and wry one-liners into the mix. The film also introduced us to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Marvel’s best villain, until Thanos showed up.

8. “Fast Five” (2011)

Technically, the fifth installment of the “Fast and Furious” saga was released on the final weekend of April, one week before “Thor.” Still, its runaway success argued that summer movie season no longer started in May. (Less than a decade later, “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” both debuted at the end of April.) This franchise quickly faced diminishing returns in later years as each “Fast and Furious” tried to outdo the previous installment. However, “Fast Five” is the sweet spot—still extremely over-the-top but not so ridiculous that our heroes are going into space. Plus, Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson’s animosity offscreen worked well for their onscreen roles as adversaries who, eventually, became allies—which definitely didn’t prove true in real life. 

7. “Spider-Man” (2002)

Even more than “X-Men,” which opened two years earlier, “Spider-Man” feels like the Big Bang of modern superhero cinema. Never mind that most industry observers assumed the Webslinger would never make his way to the big screen—the rights were so complicated to unravel that even James Cameron couldn’t make it happen—but, also, comic-book movies had experienced a downturn by the late 1990s. Enter Sam Raimi, who had tried to mount a Thor movie about a decade before he took on the origin story of Peter Parker, casting acclaimed indie actor Tobey Maguire in the role. Maguire’s chemistry with “The Virgin Suicides” star Kirsten Dunst’s MJ was palpable, setting the stage for an even better sequel in “Spider-Man 2.” And for the Raimi diehards, we even get a Bruce Campbell cameo. 

6. “X2” (2003)

Speaking of superhero movies whose Part Two is superior to the original, “X2” built on the promise of “X-Men,” deepening the characters while giving them a broader canvas to work on. “X-Men” director Bryan Singer got a larger budget this time around. He made the most of it, pitting these mutants against one another—all respect to Hugh Jackman, but the rivalry/former friendship between Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto is these movies’ heart and soul—as well as the humans who want them all eradicated. “X2” was one of those happy exceptions in which bigger turned out to be better.

5. “Iron Man 3” (2013)

Of course, this is a Christmas movie. Look at who made it. Director and co-writer Shane Black, who’d previously collaborated with Robert Downey Jr. on 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” another ironic yuletide classic, took over for “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2” director Jon Favreau, reminding audiences that Tony Stark will always be the most beloved of the Avengers. The reason, obviously, is Downey, who here gets to portray the irreverent tech genius/playboy as a more haunted individual, facing off with a frightening terrorist who goes by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Subverting aspects of Iron Man’s comic book history while delivering a surlier, more soulful superhero movie, Black brought the same witty approach to action films that he incorporated into his “Lethal Weapon” script so long ago. As for Downey, he got a more epic farewell in “Avengers: Endgame,” but “Iron Man 3” might be his best Stark performance. 

4. “Mission: Impossible III” (2006)

The third chapter in the “Mission: Impossible” saga now occupies a strange corner in the franchise. At the time, it was seen as a strategic readjustment after the overblown “Mission: Impossible 2,” with J.J. Abrams (the TV guy behind “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost”) making his feature directorial debut. But with apologies to those who adore the Brian De Palma-helmed original, “Mission: Impossible III” is my favorite of the first three, presenting Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt with one of his greatest foes, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stone-cold arms dealer Owen Davian. This was a period when people wondered if Cruise was “over”—he had appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” a year earlier, resulting in the couch jump heard ‘round the world—and “III” wasn’t the blockbuster Paramount had hoped it would be. But although the subsequent sequels are superior, this 2006 film is a fleet action-thriller that pares away some of the gaudy spectacle for a gripping, James Bond-ian adventure. 

3. “Iron Man” (2008)

It was striking to see Christopher Nolan and Robert Downey Jr. together at the Oscars this year, both receiving kudos for their work on “Oppenheimer.” Sixteen years earlier, they had rocked the industry in a completely different way. In July 2008, “The Dark Knight” profoundly changed how Hollywood approached superhero films—meanwhile, two months earlier, “Iron Man” announced there was a new sheriff in town, the colossus known as Marvel. Director Jon Favreau had made the appealing Christmas film “Elf,” and Downey had once been a beloved actor, although his addiction issues had, for a time, rendered him practically unemployable. Unlikely as it might have seemed back then, the two of them created a template for Marvel films that would soon become the envy of the industry. “The Dark Knight” remains the better movie, but “Iron Man” gave the world Downey’s impossibly charming, amusingly arrogant Tony Stark, whose world of fast cars, cool gadgets, and expensive digs could rival Bruce Wayne’s—who seemed way more troubled than this grinning smartass. Everything Marvel would achieve over the next 11 years of global box office dominance springs from here.

2. “Gladiator” (2000)

Summer blockbusters rarely win Best Picture. The recent exceptions are “Oppenheimer” and this Ridley Scott epic, which starred rising star Russell Crowe as Maximus, a noble Roman general who is definitely going to get vengeance on the snot-nosed Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who has seized the throne and killed everyone Maximus cares about. Scott combined gladiatorial spectacle with character drama—both Crowe and Phoenix glower magnificently—to produce the sort of grownup popcorn flick that is harder to come by these days. Crowe’s Best Actor win was eminently deserving, showing an acclaimed performer go big in a mainstream juggernaut without sacrificing any of his intensity or nuance. Now, nearly 25 years later, Scott is doing a sequel starring Paul Mescal, Denzel Washington, and Pedro Pascal. That’s a great cast, but good luck topping the first one. 

1. “The Avengers” (2012)

After “The Avengers,” the idea of a comic book movie featuring just one superhero seemed puny and quaint. Before he was recently accused of inappropriate workplace behavior, writer-director Joss Whedon was seen as the genius of genre filmmaking, the perfect man to bring together Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) for a suitably supersized adventure. “The Avengers” featured all of Whedon’s wit and nerdy love of superhero specifics, giving each character his or her special moments. Not long after, team-up movies became common in superhero cinema, culminating in Marvel’s twin phenomena of “Infinity War” and “Endgame.” But in 2012, the novelty and sheer giddiness of “Oh, wow, all these characters are in the same movie” was still fresh. It was a magic that could never be replicated.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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