Hollywood's summer almost always begins with a bang, then a scramble to maintain momentum. May 1 heralds the release of what is likely to be the industry's biggest earner of the season—Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, the eleventh installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which some critics see as the spark igniting an inferno of reboots, sequels, and franchises that threatens to engulf modern moviemaking. The coming months will do little to quell those fears, but outside of the Avengers machine, there's no project in the works that feels like a truly safe bet, however big the budget or familiar the title.
The success of the Marvel saga is, more than anything, its reliability—no matter who the hero on the poster is, the money always rolls in (last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, starring TV's Chris Pratt and based on a largely unknown comic, took $774 million worldwide). Every other studio is looking for that kind of cachet, and is throwing everything against the wall in the hope some of it sticks. Each summer brings its share of sequels and remakes, but there's an desperate air around many this year. Audiences haven't embraced franchises like Jurassic Park, Terminator, Mad Max, or Vacation in a generation, but Hollywood is betting that, despite their age, name recognition still rules.
Nonetheless, May offers the best chance to enjoy that rarest of breeds: the auteur-made, original blockbuster that's neither adaptation nor spinoff. That's Brad Bird's Tomorrowland (May 22), a Disney production that remains shrouded in mystery weeks before its release. Trailers indicate the plot revolves around a magical sci-fi world that George Clooney and his young charge Britt Robertson can visit, but details have been kept mercifully brief in the moving teasers. Its unknown plot makes Tomorrowland more of a risk than most of the projects debuting this summer, but Bird's involvement should prove tempting. After directing three animated-feature classics—The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille—Bird's 2011 live-action debut was the balletic Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which compensated for its nonsensical plot with truly breathtaking action sequences. Tomorrowland promises more of the same, but grounded in Bird's original storytelling (co-written with the Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof).