This summer is the first step in changing that, as jurisdictions around the country relax pandemic restrictions, and studios begin to gently ramp up the blockbusters: action flicks, comedies, romances and animated family fare. But will any of these would-be crowd-pleasers be met with actual crowds?
Part of the problem: There are still plenty of interesting movies going straight to streaming, for those who aren’t ready to come back to theaters. Even some of the biggest theatrical offerings, from such studios as Disney and Warner Bros., will be made simultaneously available on demand (see below, where noted). But if theaters are going to lure people off the couch, these next few months will be the real test. Each of the 12 movies listed below — a dozen of the most anticipated titles hitting the big screen between now and Labor Day weekend — cries out to be seen on the big screen.
Maybe you’ve forgotten what it’s like to sit together in the dark, with other lovers of stories, spun in beams of flickering light and accompanied by the boom of Dolby surround sound? Maybe it’s time to come back. Each of these movies hopes to give you a reason to.
Opening dates are subject to change.
In the Heights
(June 11, PG-13)
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jimmy Smits.
Four young New York City lovers and dreamers — an orphaned bodega owner (Ramos) and his crush (Barrera); a college student home from freshman year at Stanford (Grace) and her boyfriend (Hawkins) — anchor this adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s stage musical, a Tony-winner eight years before “Hamilton.” Set in the Big Apple’s Washington Heights, and described by The Washington Post’s Peter Marks as a “salsa-stepping valentine” to the Upper Manhattan neighborhood where Miranda grew up, the story offers eye and ear candy for theater geeks, with cameos by such Tony-nominated performers as Christopher Jackson (an alum of the original Broadway production) and Patrick Page of “Hadestown.” But it’s also about something: visibility and representation, the pursuit of the American Dream and the meaning of home. Also available on HBO Max.
Two words: Song, dance.
(June 25, PG-13)
Starring: Vin Diesel, John Cena, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson.
The car-centric “Fast & Furious” franchise long ago cut its ties to the laws of the physical universe: gravity, the transfer of kinetic energy from one speeding object to another, logic. (Remember that scene with Dwayne Johnson in the last movie, in which his character diverts a torpedo with his bare hands while driving a speeding car that’s racing a submarine — on ice?) The ninth chapter of the saga introduces a new nemesis, in the form of the long-lost, estranged brother of Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. Played by Cena — a former wrestler who has followed in Johnson’s footsteps from ring to screen — Jakob Toretto shows up in service of cyberterrorist Cipher (Theron, reprising her role from the 2017 film). There will be other familiar faces here too, including director Justin Lin, returning for his fifth stint behind the camera. Perhaps most surprisingly, actor Sung Kang, whose character, a fan favorite, died in the third film, is also back, according to the trailer. But perhaps no surprise will be bigger than this, hinted at in the trailer, which shows cars outfitted with powerful electromagnets: a car in space — or at least the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. Apropos of that leap, Lin told Collider that nothing the series ever does is simply for shock value. “It always takes something from the theme or the character journey,” he said (with an apparent straight face).
Two words: Outer space.
(July 9, PG-13)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz.
Marvel fans will get one last look at Johansson’s KGB-groomed Russian assassin-turned-superhero Natasha Romanoff, whose character met a dark fate in “Avengers: Endgame.” (The actress is not returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which stepped into Phase Four of its epic storytelling arc with the recent Disney Plus series “WandaVision,” and continues the journey with this film.) Taking place between the action of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Widow” finds its title character returning to her Russian roots with a visit to her sisterly sometime-rival, Yelena Belova (Pugh), and Weisz’s mother figure. The big question: How much will this movie be about unearthing Natasha’s complicated past, and how much about laying the groundwork for the future, as represented by the next chapter in the ever-evolving MCU? Also available on Disney Plus with Premier Access.
Two words: Goodbye, Natasha.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
(July 17, not yet rated)
Starring: LeBron James, Cedric Joe, Zendaya, Don Cheadle.
The strenuously mediocre original “Space Jam,” a 1996 mix of live action and animation pairing athlete Michael Jordan with Looney Tunes characters and pitting them against basketball-playing aliens, was a spinoff of an ad for the Nike Air Jordan VII sneaker that aired during the 1992 Super Bowl. Somehow, that movie became a cult hit. The sequel stars basketball player James, playing a version of himself in a very similar story: When his son (Joe) is trapped in something called the Server-verse — a digital library of sorts featuring such intellectual property from the vaults of Warner Bros. as King Kong, the Flintstones and the Iron Giant — an evil overlord (Cheadle) tells James the only way he can save him is by playing (you guessed it) a basketball game. It’s safe to say that the outcome of this game won’t be much in doubt. But you can bet there’ll be plenty of cameos by some familiar faces.
Two words: WB IP.
(July 23, not yet rated)
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen, Thomasin McKenzie, Ken Leung.
Shot by M. Night Shyamalan last fall during the pandemic, the thriller takes its premise from Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters’s 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastle”: Visitors to a secluded beach mysteriously begin to experience accelerated aging — and even pregnancy and death. Despite being shot on 35mm film — Shyamalan’s first use of the old-school medium since his disastrous “The Last Airbender” — it’s a scaled-back production: just a handful of actors on a single set in the Dominican Republic. It’s also the Pennsylvania-bred filmmaker’s first film set completely outside Philadelphia since his debut. “Sandcastle” left things open-ended. But lines from the film’s creepy trailers, the first of which debuted during this year’s Super Bowl — “We were chosen for a reason,” “We’re connected to something bigger” — and a mysterious coded message hint that the writer-director may have a narrative ace or two up his sleeve.
Two words: Twist ending?
(July 30, PG-13)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jesse Plemons, Jack Whitehall.
In the spirit of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise (Disney’s other theme park ride-turned-film juggernaut), “Jungle Cruise” is also loosely based on an amusement park attraction featuring a wisecracking skipper and scares. Here, an Amazon boat captain (Johnson) and a scientific researcher (Blunt) go off looking for a legendary tree, said to possess amazing healing powers. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Run All Night”) is known for action, so look out for plenty of that, courtesy of Plemons’s submarine-pilot villain. You can also expect an added, “Pirates”-like element of the supernatural. That was definitely not part of the film’s source material, which only featured the occasional animatronic hippo or two.
Two words: Theme park.
(July 30, R)
Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin.
Damon plays an Oklahoma oil-rig roughneck who goes to Marseilles to exonerate his college-age daughter (Breslin) after she is accused of murdering the young woman she’s been involved with — a plot that sounds a little like the real-life story of Amanda Knox. (Knox, an American studying abroad, was charged with the 2007 murder of her roommate in Italy.) The “Stillwater” production was shut more than once because of the pandemic, but director Tom McCarthy, best known for “Spotlight,” told Entertainment Weekly that he believes the setbacks have only made the thriller a better, more fully “baked” story. McCarthy, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “Spotlight,” isn’t the only one with Academy street cred: Damon, a nominee several times over for acting, has a statuette for the “Good Will Hunting” screenplay, and Breslin was an Oscar nominee for “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Two words: Oscar pedigree.
The Suicide Squad
(Aug. 6, R)
Starring: Flula Borg, Peter Capaldi, John Cena, Jai Courtney, David Dastmalchian, Pete Davidson, Viola Davis, Idris Elba, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Joel Kinnaman, Daniela Melchior, Mayling Ng, Margot Robbie, Michael Rooker, Sylvester Stallone.
No, you’re not crazy. There was another film with a virtually identical setup, several of the same characters and actors, and nearly the same title in 2016: David Ayer’s terrible, joyless “Suicide Squad.” The new film, which has been described as less of a sequel than a soft reboot, boasts more than a definite article. It also features an almost unmanageably large main cast of 15 protagonists, including several reruns: Robbie as Harley Quinn, Kinnaman as Rick Flag and Courtney as Boomerang. Davis also reprises her role as the government operative who offers a ragtag bunch of convicts — dubbed Task Force X, a.k.a. the Suicide Squad — reduced sentences if they complete a secret mission. The team includes a walking, talking shark (voiced by Stallone) and a motion-capture weasel-man (Gunn). But it’s Gunn’s brother, director and co-writer James Gunn, who may be the secret weapon here. Known for directing “Guardians of the Galaxy” and its excellent sequel, he might just bring the right mix of eye-popping action and self-deprecating humor to a tale that took itself way too seriously the first time around. Also available on HBO Max.
Two words: Second chances.
(Aug. 13, not yet rated)
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howrey, Taika Waititi.
As the titular Guy (a.k.a. blue shirt guy), Reynolds is the live-action equivalent of the Non-Player Character meme, a background video game extra who is the metaphorical embodiment of the lack of free will: He exists only as narrative filler. In “Free Guy,” Reynolds takes center stage as a bank teller in an online game who paradoxically develops autonomy only after he realizes — shades of “The Matrix” — that he has no autonomy. Directed by Shawn Levy (“Date Night”) and written by Zak Penn, a veteran of many a Marvel movie, “Free Guy” isn’t just an action film about saving the virtual universe when its developer (Waititi) tries to shut the game down — though it is that. It’s a romance too: one between Guy and Milly, a real-world player of the very game Guy is stuck inside. (Comer plays both Milly and her virtual avatar.)
Two words: Virtual Everyman.
(Aug. 13, PG-13)
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, Marlon Wayans.
Aretha Franklin has already gotten the biopic treatment once this year: in the National Geographic Channel miniseries “Genius: Aretha,” starring Cynthia Erivo. But despite critical praise for Erivo’s performance, the series met with controversy when some of Franklin’s relatives complained that filmmakers had not sought their input. The film debut of Tony-nominated stage director Liesl Tommy (“Eclipsed”) — the first woman of color to be nominated for directing — “Respect” stars Hudson, who brings to the project not only a résumé that includes a 2007 Oscar for “Dreamgirls,” but something a lot more significant. After seeing Hudson in that film, Franklin herself is said to have invited the actress to play her. According to Hudson, the Queen of Soul told Hudson “I’ve made my decision, and it’s you, young lady, who I want to play me. But don’t you tell a soul now.” Well, word is out.
Two words: Aretha’s blessing.
(Aug. 27, R)
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Tony Todd.
A follow-up to the 1992 horror film of the same name about a descendant of a enslaved person with a hook for a hand (Todd), the new “Candyman” has been described as less of a literal sequel than a spiritual one. It also boasts a screenplay co-written by Jordan Peele, whose résumé (“Get Out”) would suggest that there will be more to chew on here than the empty calories of the typical slasher flick. Set in Chicago, as in the original, the story centers on a visual artist (Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend (Parris of “If Beale Street Could Talk”) and concerns themes of gentrification and forgotten histories. A sneak peek at some of the puppetry that will be featured — about a Black artist whose work features portraits of Black victims of White killers — can be seen in a haunting and beautiful trailer made by the film’s director, Nia DaCosta, in collaboration with the performance collective Manual Cinema. If it’s any indication of the finished film . . . wow.
Two words: That trailer!
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
(Sept. 3, not yet rated)
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung.
A martial arts movie about an obscure terrorist organization called the Ten Rings would seem like an unlikely choice to connect the Marvel Cinematic Universe of Phases One through Three to the future of the franchise. But unless you’re an obsessive fan, you probably simply missed all the subtle references to the Ten Rings in the previous movies. After all, they were the group that held Tony Stark hostage in the very first “Iron Man” movie, remember? And in 2015’s “Ant-Man,” one potential buyer of Pym Technologies’ Yellowjacket suit sported a Ten Rings neck tattoo. (Oh, yeah.) The new film centers on the titular Shang-Chi (Simu Liu of the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience”), a warrior who has been raised to take on a heroic destiny. But by whom, and for what purpose? There are hints that Shang-Chi’s might be somehow connected to the character of the Mandarin in Marvel lore; not the fake one played by Ben Kingsley in “Iron Man 3” but the one inspired by Marvel’s version of the villain Fu Manchu, now seen as a racist stereotype. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”), “Shang-Chi” could be a way to boldly step into the future of the MCU while offering a corrective to the comics’ sometimes offensive portrayals of Asian characters in the past.
Two words: Phase Four.