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Summer movies: 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' 'The Avengers' teach lessons

Chris Evans, portraying Captain America, left, and Robert

Chris Evans, portraying Captain America, left, and Robert Downey Jr., portraying Tony Stark, are shown in a scene from "Marvel's The Avengers". Credit: AP

Doesn't it seem like summer just got here? At the movies, though, the season is almost over.

Blame it on "Marvel's The Avengers," which launched the summer in mid-spring with its May 4 release. The superhero supergroup scored the biggest three-day weekend ever with $200.3 million, according to, and went on to become the third highest-grossing film in history. That made most subsequent releases -- even "The Amazing Spider-Man," which broke a Tuesday opening record with $35 million -- feel a little lukewarm. Only one more big movie-event awaits us, "The Dark Knight Rises," on July 20. After that, we're drifting toward an August full of question marks like the Matt Damon-less "The Bourne Legacy" and Whitney Houston's might-have-been comeback, "Sparkle."

Pretty soon, the popcorn films will be gone and we'll be seeing the heavy dramas and message movies of autumn. But first I'm going to look back at the movies I've seen since May 4 -- almost 40 features in all -- and take stock. Here are five things I learned during my summer movie vacation.


Remember the days when you'd pay to see almost anything with Your Favorite Star? No longer. It turns out that even the most successful, most zealously worshiped actors aren't enough to sell a movie. What's important now is not the star, but the franchise.

Johnny Depp, whose "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies have been runaway smashes, couldn't do much for the vampire comedy "Dark Shadows," a middling domestic performer at $76 million. Tom Cruise, the definition of A-list, turned last year's fourth "Mission: Impossible" film into a $639-million worldwide hit, but his hair-metal musical "Rock of Ages" went limp this summer.

The best example, though, remains Robert Pattinson. When a "Twilight" movie comes out, Pattinson seems more famous than The Beatles and Elizabeth Taylor combined. When he removes his Edward Cullen contact lenses, though, fans lose interest. His past efforts, "Remember Me" and "Water for Elephants," fizzled quickly, and few "Twi"-hards have shown up for his latest, "Bel Ami," a costume drama co-starring Christina Ricci and Uma Thurman. Its worldwide gross is just $7.1 million.


Little movies rarely rack up big numbers, but they're still thriving. Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" broke a box-office record over the Memorial Day weekend with a per-screen average of $130,752. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," starring Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, tapped into the overlooked senior audience and has earned $122.8 million worldwide since May 4. "Beasts of the Southern Wild," an unlikely fantasy film set in impoverished New Orleans, has just $244,000 to its name so far, but near-unanimous raves may turn it into a sleeper hit (it's scheduled to open locally Friday).

My art-house favorite this summer was "Safety Not Guaranteed," starring Mark Duplass as a possible nut case working on a time machine and Aubrey Plaza as a cynical journalist who starts to believe his story. It's mostly a vehicle for the acerbic Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), whose withering deadpan could kill a man at 50 yards. But the movie also has a sweet spirit and a romantic heart, two things lacking in movies of all sizes these days.


Movies this summer put an emphasis on heroines and often pitted them against female villains. For my money, the baddies won. These rich, complicated characters were a refreshing change from their male counterparts, who usually have dull, single-minded motives like world domination or an inexplicable hatred of Spider-Man.

In "Snow White and the Huntsman," for instance, Charlize Theron's Queen Ravenna was fascinating, a woman so defined by her beauty that she's literally and metaphorically cursed by it. Theron was also terrific in "Prometheus" as Meredith Vickers, a steely-eyed survivor ready to torch anything or anyone threatening her ship.

The best villain of any gender this summer was Eva Green's Angelique in "Dark Shadows." As the spurned, lower-caste lover of Johnny Depp's aristocratic Barnabas Collins, she was the film's most compelling and thrilling character, a centuries-old cougar full of pent-up lust, righteous rage and wicked humor. Every time she urged Depp's weak-willed vampire to surrender to her love, it sounded like a pretty good idea.


We've all had fun revisiting the Duran Duran decade, whether in comedies ("Hot Tub Time Machine") or remakes ("Footloose"). This summer, though, the vinyl has finally melted. First, "Rock of Ages" watered down the sleazy hair-metal era into an extra-cute episode of "Glee." Next, Adam Sandler's disastrous "That's My Boy" encouraged Todd Bridges (of "Diff'rent Strokes") to mock his troubled past by smearing cocaine all over his nose. Bringing up the rear was "Ted," an otherwise likable comedy so filled with 1980s references -- from Tom Skerritt to "Flash Gordon" to Todd Bridges again -- that it felt like an old rerun of "Jeopardy!"

"Ted" tapped into the '90s as well, with a karaoke performance of Hootie and the Blowfish's "Only Wanna Be with You," but this can't possibly be a trend. That decade wasn't funny the first time.


Don't we all learn this lesson every summer? It was driven home for me this year by "Magic Mike," an up-close look at the well-oiled world of male strippers starring Channing Tatum, who used to be one. It's a parade of awe-inspiring pecs, abs and glutes belonging to could-be Mapplethorpe models such as Joe Manganiello (HBO's "True Blood") and the ever-shirtless Matthew McConaughey. Remember "The Full Monty," in which any guy with enough courage to get naked received a standing ovation? A comforting fantasy, but "Magic Mike" lives in the real world, where the guys swinging themselves around have something worth looking at. Frankly, my body image may never recover. This must be how women feel when they see movies like -- well, just about all movies, I guess.

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