After the theater shutdowns of 2020 — followed by an anemic summer movie slate last year that didn’t really get going until the season was half over — the coming attractions calendar for the months ahead offers a few reasons for cautious optimism. Twenty-one reasons, to be precise.
Kicking off this week with Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the season of popcorn movies (and a few crunchier nuggets) is upon us. The healthy mix of genres is encouraging, including action (fighter jets! dinosaurs! superheroes!), horror, drama, a couple of feature-length soap operas, biography and animation (for both kids and grown-ups).
Here’s what we’re most excited about and why.
Opening dates are subject to change.
(May 13, R)
Starring: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Gloria Reuben, Kurtwood Smith.
What’s the story? Stephen King’s 1980 novel about Charlie McGee, a girl with pyrokinesis — the ability to start fires with her mind — has proved fertile to the cinematic imagination. Drew Barrymore starred in a 1984 film adaptation, which was followed in 2002 by a TV sequel: the Sci Fi Channel miniseries “Firestarter: Rekindled.” (In 2007, Barrymore reprised her role as a grown-up Charlie, in an ad for Firestarter Brand Smoked Sausages, on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”) Efron plays Charlie’s father, who must protect his daughter (Armstrong) from those who want to harness Charlie’s powers for evil purposes. At the same time, he tries to teach her to not let her emotions control her abilities. Also available on Peacock.
What’s the special sauce? Metaphorical potential. In the wake of “Turning Red,” Pixar’s animated comedy about a girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited, it’s hard not to see “Firestarter” in the same light: as a provocative allegory of puberty.
Downton Abbey: A New Era
(May 20, PG)
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuppence Middleton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West.
What’s the story? When the Crawley family matriarch (Smith) announces she has come into possession of an estate on the French Riviera — courtesy of a man she knew in her youth — the clan decamps from Yorkshire to the South of France, leaving Dockery’s Lady Mary to oversee a film crew that has rented out the titular house for a movie shoot. The Dowager Countess’s windfall leaves several mysteries to be plumbed, including one concerning a character’s paternity. According to the Guardian, the sequel is “hammy, silly and undeniably entertaining as ever.”
What’s the special sauce? A change of scenery. As the Dowager Countess puts it in the trailer, “Do I look as though I’d turn down a villa in the South of France?”
(May 20, R)
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin.
What’s the story? After the tragic death of her husband (Essiedu), a young widow named Harper (Buckley) seeks solace by renting a cottage in the English countryside. But she soon finds that someone — or something — appears to be stalking her, in this erudite, richly allusive example of elevated horror from writer-director Alex Garland (“Annihilation”), whose screenplay, a meditation on toxic masculinity, references centuries-old myth, even as it plays with the tropes of the contemporary slasher film.
What’s the special sauce? According to press material, the film was a three-way collaboration among Garland, whose provocative 2015 film “Ex Machina” was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar; Buckley, a supporting actress nominee for last year’s “The Lost Daughter”; and Kinnear, a BAFTA nominee who plays, by my count, seven roles in the film — all creepy.
(May 20, R)
Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague.
What’s the story? A contemporary western by co-writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“What Maisie Knew”), “Montana” tells the story of Erin (Richardson) and Call (Teague), estranged siblings who reunite by their father’s deathbed at the ranch they grew up on — where a violent incident involving Erin and her father (Rob Story) drove her away.
What’s the special sauce? The 27-year-old Richardson (“Columbus”) is one of her generation’s most watchable actresses. The Hollywood Reporter calls her “terrific at signaling the combustible anger in Erin as she flinches whenever she’s anywhere near their unconscious father.”
The Bob’s Burgers Movie
(May 27, PG-13)
Starring: H. Jon Benjamin, John Roberts, Dan Mintz, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, Zach Galifianakis, Kevin Kline.
What’s the story? Now in its 12th season — and renewed for a 13th — the beloved Fox animated series hits the big screen after five years in development and several pandemic delays. Patty purveyor Bob Belcher (voice of Benjamin) finds himself struggling to keep his greasy spoon afloat after a massive sinkhole opens up outside the restaurant, and he struggles to make a bank payment. Meanwhile, his kids (Mintz, Schaal and Mirman) investigate a mystery that could save the family business.
What’s the special sauce? The trailer for the movie promises “mystery, meat and mayhem.” What it doesn’t mention: It’s also a musical.
Top Gun: Maverick
(May 27, PG-13)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Val Kilmer, Lewis Pullman.
What’s the story? In this sequel to the 1986 blockbuster, Cruise reprises his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, now a hotshot former Navy flyboy called back to teach young fighter pilots. His students include Teller’s Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, the son of the first film’s Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), whose death Rooster blames Maverick for. Reactions to a preview screening at CinemaCon, the annual convention of theater owners, were glowing, typified by a tweet from Fandango Managing Editor Erik Davis, who described “Maverick” as “absolutely terrific in every conceivable way.”
What’s the special sauce? Ice Man. Cruise insisted that his character’s “Top Gun” rival turned wingman, played by Kilmer, return for the sequel. Kilmer, who has lost his voice because of throat cancer, is reported to have had his voice re-created through A.I.
Jurassic World Dominion
(June 10, PG-13)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Isabella Sermon, DeWanda Wise, BD Wong.
What’s the story? Famously shot during the pandemic on a locked-down set (a situation mocked in Judd Apatow’s satirical “The Bubble”), the sixth installment in the dinosaur saga — in which dinosaurs now hunt freely alongside man — has the longest running time in the franchise’s history: 146 minutes. Maybe that’s necessary to accommodate two sets of actors — one from the original “Jurassic Park” trilogy and another from the “Jurassic World” sequels — plus all the new characters. (They include Wise’s pilot Kayla Watts.) Wong, a veteran of both “Jurassic Park” and “Jurassic Word” movies as geneticist Henry Wu, can be heard in the trailer saying, “We made a terrible mistake.” Wait, wasn’t that already obvious several films ago?
What’s the special sauce? The test-tube dinosaurs have gotten bigger. Giganotosaurus, whose genetic material was used to created the hybrid behemoth Indominus rex in the 2015 film, is now the big — make that biggest — dog.
The Phantom of the Open
(June 10, PG-13)
Starring: Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins.
What’s the story? Inspired by the outlandish true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a British shipyard worker who crashed the British Open in 1976 — and several subsequent tournaments, under various pseudonyms — despite never having previously played a round of golf, this quirky and heartwarming comedy has charmed audiences (this writer included) at early screenings. The great character actor Rylance plays Maurice not as a laughingstock or charlatan (though he was a bit of both), but as a sweetly naive dreamer, supported in his quixotic quest by his loving wife, Jean (Hawkins). Toward the end of the film, Maurice says of Jean: “If life is a cup of tea, she’s the sugar in it,” and the same could be said of Hawkins in the film.
What’s the special sauce? Director Craig Roberts, a young Welsh actor who made an auspicious debut in the 2010 coming-of-age film “Submarine,” has turned to filmmaking in recent years (“Just Jim,” “Eternal Beauty”). He brings an antic sensibility to “Phantom” — framing a shot, for instance, looking upward from the inside of a golf hole — but his storytelling is always grounded in emotional truth.
(June 17, not yet rated)
Starring: Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, James Brolin.
What’s the story? Call it a meta-superhero origin story. In this animated feature, Evans plays astronaut Buzz Lightyear — not the familiar action figure voiced by Tim Allen in the Toy Story movies, but a fictional movie character by the same name that inspired the toy. Got all that? Never mind. Just trust Pixar to tell the sci-fi adventure tale with humor and heart.
What’s the special sauce? “Lightyear” arrives with another kind of “buzz.” Originally cut, a scene featuring a same-sex kiss between Aduba’s character and her scientist wife was restored in the wake of protests by Disney employees about the company’s position on Florida’s controversial bill restricting LGBTQ discussion.
(June 24, not yet rated)
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Kodi Smit-McPhee.
What’s the story? The Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann brought an outsider’s perspective to his 2013 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 critique of the American Dream. So it wouldn’t be unfair to expect Luhrmann’s biography of Elvis Presley (Butler) to also bring a jaundiced eye to this quintessentially American tale, which views the rise and fall of the King through the lens of his relationship with his enigmatic music manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker (who may or may not have been a Dutch immigrant born Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk).
What’s the special sauce? Hanks, “America’s dad,” seems cast against type as Parker. The character comes across as a kind of Svengali in the trailer: “There are some who’d make me out to be the villain of this here story,” he says.
The Black Phone
(June 24, R)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw.
What’s the story? “Phone” marks the return of director Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange”) to the horror roots he established — not always to great effect — with “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Sinister” and “Deliver Us From Evil.” Set in 1978, the film follows Finney (Thames, making his film debut), a 13-year-old boy who is abducted by a masked psycho known as the Grabber (Hawke). In Finney’s dungeonlike cell, the boy finds a disconnected landline that somehow allows him to communicate, supernaturally, with the spirits of the room’s former occupants.
What’s the special sauce? “The Black Phone” is based on a short story from the Bram Stoker Award-winning collection “20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill (a.k.a. Joseph Hillstrom King, the son of horror virtuoso Stephen King). Like father, like son?
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
(June 24, PG)
Starring: Jenny Slate, Isabella Rossellini.
What’s the story? From the 2010 debut of Dean Fleischer-Camp’s “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” a stop-action short about a talking shell (brilliantly voiced by Slate) with one googly eye and, of course, shoes, the franchise has been a viral hit, spawning two short sequels. (All three are available on Fleischer-Camp’s YouTube channel.) In this feature-length continuation of the saga, Marcel — whose only company is his grandmother (Rossellini) and their pet lint, Alan — goes off in search of other long-lost family members, who are said to have vanished in a mysterious tragedy.
What’s the special sauce? Slate, Fleischer-Camp’s chief collaborator, brings a touch of poignancy to the smallest moments in her cracked, slightly croaky delivery, which fluctuates between heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Minions: The Rise of Gru
(July 1, PG)
Starring: Steve Carell, Russell Brand, Michelle Yeoh, Julie Andrews.
What’s the story? This 1970s-set animated supervillain origin story follows a 12-year-old Gru (voice of Carell), a budding criminal mastermind facing off against a rival gang with the help of his little pill-shaped henchmen.
What’s the special sauce? New additions to the voice cast include several veteran action stars among those playing the film’s villains, known as the Vicious 6, with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren and Danny Trejo joining Alan Arkin and Taraji P. Henson.
Thor: Love and Thunder
(July 8, not yet rated)
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Chris Pratt, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Taika Waititi.
What’s the story? The retirement plans of a war-weary Thor (Hemsworth) are put on hold by the appearance of the villainous Gorr the God Butcher (Bale), whose stated aim is nothing less than the extinction of the Asgardians. (It’s right there in his name!) In his quest to stop Gorr, Thor is aided by Valkyrie (Thompson), Korg (Waititi) and former flame Jane Foster (Portman).
What’s the special sauce? The God of Thunder is a lady. Much has been made of the appearance of Thor’s old girlfriend, who appears in the trailer brandishing Thor’s signature weapon: the celestial hammer Mjolnir.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank
(July 15, PG)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Cera, Michelle Yeoh, Mel Brooks, Ricky Gervais, Djimon Hounsou, George Takei, Aasif Mandvi.
What’s the story? In this computer-animated family adventure from Nickelodeon, set in a town called Kakamucho, populated almost entirely by cats, an — ahem — underdog pooch named Hank (voice of Cera) enlists the services of Jimbo (Jackson), a once-great-but-now-retired samurai cat, to train him to fight off a villainous feline named Ika Chu (Gervais) who is terrorizing their village.
What’s the special sauce? The film once had the working title “Blazing Samurai” — and is in fact an homage to the 1974 film “Blazing Saddles.” That may explain all the flatulence humor in the trailer, along with the presence of “Saddles” director Brooks in the role of the shogun of Kakamucho.
Where the Crawdads Sing
(July 15, not yet rated)
Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, David Strathairn, Harris Dickinson, Garret Dillahunt.
What’s the story? Based on Delia Owens’ 2018 best-selling thriller, “Crawdads” follows Kya (Edgar-Jones), a.k.a. the “Marsh Girl,” a coastal North Carolina wild child who, after being abandoned by her family, raises herself to adulthood, falls in love and is eventually put on trial for murder.
The secret sauce? There’s a line in the book: “Dear reader, I’ve steered this exquisite tale into a bit of hackneyed territory, but a girl’s gotta score a movie deal.” Well, producer Reese Witherspoon (“Gone Girl,” “Big Little Lies”) certainly thinks it has potential.
(July 22, not yet rated)
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun.
What’s the story? Written and directed by Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), the horror film centers on sibling horse trainers James and Jill Haywood (Kaluuya and Palmer), and their experiences with a mysterious force that settles over their California ranch.
What’s the special sauce? Whether it’s Peele’s directorial debut “Get Out,” his follow-up “Us” or the “Candyman” sequel he produced, the filmmaker puts his stamp on everything he touches. That’s his knack for scaring us and making us think at the same time.
(July 29, not yet rated)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (a.k.a. Bad Bunny).
What’s the story? Five assassins — played by Pitt, Henry, Taylor-Johnson, King and Koji — board a Japanese high-speed train en route from Tokyo to Morioka, only to find that their missions are intertwined. The high-octane, action-packed thriller is based on Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel “Maria Beetle” (retitled “Bullet Train” for the English translation). NPR called the book “fast, deadly and loads of fun.”
What’s the special sauce? Stuntman and stunt coordinator turned filmmaker David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Deadpool 2”) knows his way around a fight scene but also knows not to get in the way of a flinging zinger.
DC League of Super-Pets
(July 29, not yet rated)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, John Krasinski, Kevin Hart, Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, Keanu Reeves, Kate McKinnon, Marc Maron.
What’s the story? In this animated comedy, Johnson provides the voice of Krypto, a super-dog belonging to Superman (Krasinski). When his master is kidnapped by Lex Luthor (Maron), along with Batman (Reeves) and other members of the Justice League, Krypto must rally his animal friends — who have newly discovered powers of their own — to rescue them.
What’s the special sauce? After contributing to a string of very funny screenplays for “The Lego Batman Movie” and other comedies — live action and animated — Jared Stern (“Happy Anniversary”) makes his animated directorial debut.
(Aug. 19, not yet rated)
Starring: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries, Sharlto Copley.
What’s the story? Baltasar Kormakur (“Everest”) directs Elba in an action-adventure tale about a widower whose visit to a South African game reserve with his daughters (Halley and Jeffries) — meant as an opportunity for emotional healing — turns into a nightmare when they are stalked by a rogue lion.
What’s the special sauce? It’s August, and Kormakur — while no auteur — brings a workmanlike approach to thrillers. This writer described his 2012 film “Contraband,” with Mark Wahlberg, as “an Oceans Eleven movie, minus the glamour.”
(Aug. 26, PG-13)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Javon “Wanna” Walton, Martin Starr, Moises Arias, Pilou Asbaek.
What’s the story? Based on a series of comic books published by the micro-indie label Mythos, “Samaritan” tells the story of a trash collector (Stallone) who turns out to be a retired superhero once known as Samaritan. Walton plays a boy who coaxes his hero to again take up the mantle and save their city from a new villain (Asbaek). Reaction to the dark and violent trailer, which CinemaCon attendees were given a sneak preview of, was glowing.
What’s the special sauce? At 75 years old, Stallone has the rare distinction of having had at least one No. 1 film at the box office in each of six successive decades, from 1976’s “Rocky” to last year’s “The Suicide Squad.”