I’m pretty comfortable predicting that this summer’s theatrical movie season will be the weirdest summer movie season since last summer’s movie season. No, theaters won’t be closed worldwide while the few open indie multiplexes and drive-ins try to subsist on nostalgic re-releases and arthouse horror flicks. However, the theatrical offerings are a set of mostly B-level franchise entries amid a few A-level tentpoles. Even with the emphasis on franchises and IP, that makes this summer feel like a distinctly early 1990’s season.
Back in, say, 1995, there was Batman Forever, Pocahontas, Apollo 13 and then everything else fighting it out amid a more merciful theatrical environment. Or, more recently, Avengers, Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-Man vs. everything else in summer 2012.
There are quite a would-be summer 2020 biggies (Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan, Soul, etc.) that have already been released. Meanwhile, a number of would-be summer 2020 flicks (Top Gun: Maverick, Minions: The Rise of Gru, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, etc.) have been further delayed. There are yet more would-be summer 2021 biggies (The Batman, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Jurassic World: Dominion, etc.) are set for release in late 2021 sometime in 2022. And let’s not forget films like Cinderella and The Tomorrow War which were sold off to streaming platforms.
Point being, the summer release slate is a hodgepodge of “was supposed to be in 2020” and “didn’t have to vacate 2021” titles, most of them smaller in scale and not aiming for blow-out status. The hope is for achieving normalcy, not notching milestones.
So, without further ado, thus continues this summer movie preview. There’s only a handful here that I might expect to outgross Godzilla Vs. Kong ($425 million with Japan on the way) and even fewer that might hope to just match what Hi, Mom ($825 million) or Detective Chinatown 3 ($700 million) earned in China alone earlier this year. Without further ado, the three “surefire” blockbusters and the four biggest “might break out” question marks.
F9: The Fast Saga (Universal)
Universal is positioning the ninth Fast & Furious movie as the “welcome back, blockbusters” event. Opening May 21 in China and much of the world and then on June 25 in North America, the Justin Lin-directed flick pits Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto against John Cena as his evil big brother. We already know that we’ll get car chases involving magnets, a trip to space and the return of Sung Kang’s Han Lue after his apparent fiery demise at the hands of Jason Statham’s (now-reformed) Deckard Shaw. F9 will allegedly/possibly set up a two-part “Dominic Toretto and the Deathly Hallows”-type finale. Prior to the pandemic, F9 was pegged to be 2020’s biggest global grosser. It’s now likely to be 2020’s biggest Hollywood-specific global grosser save for maybe Spider-Man: No Way Home (December 17).
Prior to all of this, F9 was potentially going to be the first movie to top $1 billion worldwide without passing $200 million domestic. Now we’ll see if it can out-gross Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ($177 million domestic and $794 million worldwide in 2017) as the biggest-grossing Hollywood film to earn under $200 million domestic. Absence may indeed make the heart grow fonder, as it’s been four years between straight-up Dominic Toretto-specific sequels (starts singing “See You Again”). That’s especially if the movie is closer in quality to Fast Five than Fate of the Furious. I would be shocked if F9 wasn’t the biggest movie of the summer, partially thanks to potentially huge business in China and halfway decent business in North America. The only question is “How big?”
Black Widow (Walt Disney)
While I’d argue that Black Widow would have been a bigger deal had it opened in summer 2017 (between Civil War and Infinity War which is when it takes place) or before Natasha took a long walk off a short cliff in Endgame, it’s still a solo MCU superhero movie centered on one of the flagship Avengers. Scarlett Johansson is passing the metaphorical torch to Florence Pugh in this Bourne/Red Sparrow/Atomic Blonde-ish espionage actioner. Kate Shortland’s MCU prequel will arrive with the MCU machine back in full swing via Disney+ television shows and Black Widow looking even more like yesterday’s MCU business. The film will open in theaters and on Disney+ “Premier Access” on July 9. All of these factors will be why it’ll only make “much of the money” instead of “all the money.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Walt Disney)
This is the second Marvel/Disney flick, but to be fair much of the competition (Universal’s Jurassic World 3, Paramount’s Top Gun 2, etc.) fled to safer waters. The Simu Liu/Awkwafina/Tony Leung/Michelle Yeoh “first Asian MCU superhero” movie could be our first unmitigated Labor Day blockbuster. There’s little reason not to expect the Daniel Destin Cretton-directed flick to break out on the level of (at least, give or take Covid variables) Doctor Strange ($677 million in 2016) even if China reacts with a comparative shrug. It’s a demographically-specific event movie along with being Marvel playing in thus-far uncharted waters (the martial arts movie), and it’ll have three weeks before Venom: Let There Be Carnage. A summer unlike any other is hoping to end with the most conventional thing in the world: an MCU blockbuster.
The burning questions…
Yes, if there were more “biggies” opening this summer, had the likes of Jurassic World: Dominion, Top Gun: Maverick and The Matrix 4 not been pushed back, this might have been a closer competition. As it is, it’s really a three-way race between the MCU actioners (huge in North America, healthy in China, with strong fan-specific loyalty and goodwill) and the Fast Saga sequel (healthy in North America, huge in China, with strong fan-specific loyalty and goodwill). But what else is there? Well, aside from a handful of high-profile horror flicks (Spiral, Candyman, A Quiet Place part II, etc.) and some “just a movie” offerings like Free Guy and In the Heights, that’s mostly it. However, there are four other potential “biggies” opening in June, July and August which absolutely could break out, relatively speaking.
Space Jam: A New Legacy (Warner Bros.)
Will LeBron James’ Space Jam sequel play to generational nostalgia or be another unrequested sequel?
Opening July 16, this Malcom D. Lee-directed Space Jam sequelhas mostly been discussed in terms of fabricated controversies about Pepe Le Pew getting “canceled,” and whether making Lola Bunny (now voiced by Zendaya) a more well-rounded character plays into the “social justice warrior” crowd. Pepe’s barely in Looney Toons: Back in Action, and that 2003 romp includes Speedy Gonzalez and Porky Pig mourning their declining popularity due to changing times. The big question is whether the film will be another “this sequel exists because the studio and/or certain filmmakers wanted it” or whether this 25-years-later follow-up will play as an all-ages theatrical-worthy romp while capitalizing on decades of multi-generational nostalgia (and the original film’s place as a comparative touchtone for Black moviegoers). Presumably responsible (under-$100 million?) budgeting aside, this could go either way.
Hotel Transylvania: Transformania (Sony)
Will the fourth “Drac Pac” movie thrive without Adam Sandler?
Each of the three Hotel Transylvania movies have out-grossed their predecessor worldwide, which each one has been leggier than the last in North America. With the biggest/best animated films (The Mitchells Vs. the Machines, Luca, etc.) mostly going to streaming, Sony Animation’s fourth “Drac Pack” flick is by default summer’s biggest animated film. The initial trilogy has earned $379 million, $469 million and $527 million in 2012, 2015 and 2018 on a combined budget of $230 million. However, Adam Sandler will not be reprising this time out, with Brian Hull (made famous via a YouTube video of him singing “Let It Go” as various animated characters) taking over. While kids won’t care about the actor swap when it opens on July 23, the demos that view Hotel Transylvania as a Sandler-and-friends animated franchise might (even with everyone else reprising).
Jungle Cruise (Walt Disney)
Can this be Disney’s first true “new to cinemas” live-action franchise in nearly 17 years?
Delayed from last July, this action-comedy is loosely based on the popular theme park ride, one which ironically has undergone an allegedly “less cultural offensive” reworking over the last year. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt are headlining this Jaume Collet-Serra-directed romp which wants to remind you of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. Hopes were high last year that it might become Disney’s first new-to-cinema live-action franchise (outside of the MCU) since Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 and National Treasure in 2004. Johnson is a force with a viable IP, Blunt is an added value draw, and the film looks like quite a bit of fun. If Disney’s live-action departments want to be more than just Marvel, Star Wars and live-action remakes/revamps of their animated hits, well, this one (opening July 30) better break out.
The Suicide Squad (Warner Bros.)
Can a Suicide Squad sequel still soar without Will Smith and the Joker?
This has all the ingredients of a “too late” sequel to a film that was a big hit ($745 million sans China) without being terribly well-liked. David Ayer’s (heavily compromised) ensemble supervillain flick boasted the first live-action appearance of Harley Quinn, a Will Smith star turn and cameos by Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jared Leto’s Joker. Margot Robbie is back as Harley, while James Gunn is in the director’s chair. That’s ironic since Guardians of the Galaxy is what Warner Bros. was aiming for even if Ayer was initially crafting something closer to The Fast & the Furious. A crowdpleasing trailer, a marquee director and a rejuvenated DC Films may help compensate for the “just curious the first time” variable. Besides, in normal times, I’d have pegged Godzilla Vs. Kong as a whiff, so WB gets my benefit of the doubt.
That’s a wrap for “part two.” Now is it possible that I’m wrong on these flicks? Sure, F9 could underperform while Free Guy soars to infinity and beyond. Suicide Squad 2 could be a classic “Tomb Raider Trap” while In the Heights pulls Greatest Showman-level grosses worldwide. Hell, Cruella could play closer to Cinderella ($520 million in 2015)than Dumbo ($350 million). But the vast majority of 2021 summer movie releases will be content with $100-$150 million worldwide (the horror movies) or thrilled with $300 million worldwide (the likes of Peter Rabbit: The Runaway, Free Guy or Cinderella). Theaters shouldn’t expect that many blow-out hits or record opening weekends. They can still hope that the consistent output offers a steady stream of halfway decent business from May 7 to Labor Day weekend. It’s a summer about survival, not superlative success.
By Scott Mendelson, Forbes Staff