The movie industry hasn't had much to be optimistic about in recent years, with pandemic disruptions and the rise of streaming delivering a one-two punch to theaters.
An understandably skittish Warner Brothers sent its entire 2021 theatrical slate onto HBO Max, a boost to their streamer but a blow to the bottom line, while The Last of the Great Movie Stars, Tom Cruise, saw his hotly anticipated "Top Gun" sequel rescheduled six times from its original release date of 2019. That the high-flying "Top Gun: Maverick" has at last hit theaters May 24 signals at least a momentary vote of confidence in movie theaters.
Yes, summer movie season is back. So is SARS-CoV-2, in a rapidly rising sixth wave (so proceed to the snack bar at your own risk). In traditional summer movie fashion, what's next emphasizes big-scale action and family movies but also counter-programming for those seeking something less noisy and more sophisticated. Your Friendly Neighborhood Movie Critic is here to break it all down, including some appealing streaming options for those more comfortable in a home theater this season. (One proviso: release dates are approximate. Only COVID concerns will shift blockbuster release dates, but "smaller" films may roll out to our market on a slightly delayed timeline after debuting in L.A. and New York.)
The summer movie season unofficially kicked off back on May 6, with the release of Disney's latest Marvel superhero extravaganza "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." Superheroes still rule blockbuster cinema, and Marvel hopes lightning will strike again July 8 with the comedy-toned "Thor: Love and Thunder" promoting Natalie Portman to the job of Mighty Thor opposite Chris Hemsworth's Thor Classic.
Although Warner's DC Comics film franchise has mostly ceded the summer to Marvel, they're targeting kids with "DC League of Super-Pets" (July 29), in which heavyweight stars like Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart lend their voices to those legacy characters that are the loyal pet companions of Superman, Batman and the like.
Meanwhile, a couple of smaller-scale, kid-friendly action flicks want some of that superhero box-office mojo: "Secret Headquarters" (Aug. 5), about a boy who begins to suspect his dad is a superhero, and "Samaritan" (Aug. 26), in which a boy begins to suspect a character played by Sylvester Stallone may be a long-lost superhero. Who says there are no new ideas in Hollywood?
Franchise pictures always abound during the summer, and arguably the biggest of the bunch will be "Jurassic World Dominion" (June 10), which brings back legacy stars Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum to assist Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in wrangling dinosaurs run amok. One week later, Disney-Pixar tries a new angle on the beloved "Toy Story" line with "Lightyear" (June 17), an origin story of how the "real-life" Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) first went to infinity — and beyond!
Also in the animated franchise origin-story space: "Minions: The Rise of Gru" (July 1), with the fifth film in the "Despicable Me" universe essaying the adventures of young Gru (Steve Carell) amidst those sentient yellow marshmallows, the Minions.
Expect plenty of animated offerings. Fox's charming animated family sitcom "Bob's Burgers" makes its big-screen debut with "The Bob's Burgers Movie" (May 27). A24 offers the film fest hit "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" (June 24), which blends live-action with a stop-motion-animated shell. And the martial arts-themed "Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank" (July 15) managed to attract a cool-kids cast of voice talent: Michael Cera, Samuel L. Jackson, Ricky Gervais, Michelle Yeoh, George Takei, Mel Brooks and Djimon Housou, among others.
Action used to be the summer movie season's bread and butter, but outside of superhero movies, action is a waning genre. Brad Pitt hopes to change all that with the action comedy "Bullet Train" (Aug. 5), in which he plays one of five assassins who begin to piece together how their assignments are interconnected. The more budget-conscious horror genre has picked up the slack, beginning with the buzzy "Men" (May 20) from writer-director Alex Garland ("Ex Machina"). Not to be outdone, writer-director-producer Jordan Peele ("Get Out") returns with another creep-out provocation in "Nope" (July 22); like his previous "Us," "Nope" is a California-set horror cocktail that comes with a twist of science fiction. The scares keep on coming with David Cronenberg's return to body horror "Crimes of the Future" (June 3), featuring Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart; nailbiter "The Black Phone" (June 24), with Ethan Hawke playing a serial killer for erstwhile "Doctor Strange" director Scott Derrickson; and slasher comedy "Bodies Bodies Bodies" (Aug. 5).
Although summer movies tend to be four-quadrant pictures, appealing to the broadest possible audience, plenty of films for grown-ups hope to attract older audiences or at least get spillover from sold-out screenings of blockbusters. Even the genre whose brand is refinement has its franchises, as evidenced by "Downton Abbey: A New Era" (May 20), the latest installment of the TV-spawned film series. Music biopic fans can check out Austin Butler as the King of Rock 'n' Roll opposite Tom Hanks' Colonel Parker in Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis" (June 24), while "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris" (July 15) grants a travel adventure to Lesley Manville's widowed English cleaning lady. The closest this summer may come to a beach read, "Where the Crawdads Sing" (July 15), adapts the bestselling mystery drama under the imprimatur of producer Reese Witherspoon.
The cautious, the caretakers and the immunocompromised do not have visions of popcorn and soda dancing in their heads, but the streamers have them covered with aggressive slates of original films. Disney+ has the animated chipmunk revival "Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers" (May 20), while Disney's Hulu arm has become the home of Searchlight Pictures, with film-fest-tested offerings like gay-themed rom com "Fire Island" (June 3), the Emma Thompson-starring age-gap sex comedy "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" (June 17), and the youth-skewing, Zoey Deutch-Dylan O'Brien-starring satire "Not Okay" (July 29) — oh, and Hulu also hosts the "Predator" prequel "Prey" (Aug. 5), indicating it's perhaps a bit too intense for Disney+. HBO Max has the reboot "Father of the Bride" (June 16) starring Andy Garcia, Prime Video drops the alarming college-set comedy-drama "Emergency" (May 27), and AppleTV+ nabbed Cooper Raiff's "S#!%house" follow-up "Cha Cha Real Smooth," a comedy-drama with Raiff starring opposite Dakota Johnson.
One way for Netflix to assuage nervous shareholders is the subscription streaming service's ready-for-rollout slew of original summer movies. The eclectic slate includes science fiction thriller "Spiderhead" (June 17), from "Top Gun: Maverick" director Joseph Kosinski and producer-star Chris Hemsworth; the Adam Sandler basketball drama "Hustle" (June 8); the animated comic-book adventure "Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie" (Aug. 5); "13: The Musical" (Aug. 12), freshly adapted from the 2008 Broadway production; "The Gray Man" (July 15), an action thriller directed by Anthony and Joe Russo ("Avengers: Endgame") and starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas; the Jane Austen adaptation "Persuasion," starring Dakota Johnson and Henry Golding; the action comedy "Day Shift" (Aug. 12), starring Jamie Foxx as a vampire hunter trying to raise an 8-year-old daughter; and the Mark Wahlberg-Kevin Hart comedy "Me Time" (Aug. 26).
Not enough for you? Summer has plenty of odds and ends jockeying for attention. How about a mystery-thriller starring, written and directed by, "The Office"'s Ryan, B.J. Novak? That'd be "Vengeance" (July 29). Or the latest from writer-director John Michael McDonagh ("The Guard," "Cavalry"), a drama starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain? That one's "The Forgiven" (July 1). Want to see Idris Elba stalked by a lion? Check out "Beast" (Aug. 19). Or perhaps you prefer Elba in an epic fantasy romance from "Mad Max" auteur George Miller, "Three Thousand Years of Longing" (Aug. 31). Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation") gets a change of pace in the Sundance-nurtured dark crime drama "Emily the Criminal" (Aug. 12), and I, for one, am so down for psychological thriller "Resurrection" (Aug. 5), which pairs two of the finest actors working today, Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth.
Whether it's jumbo sodas in cup holders or piña coladas on the couch, here's hoping you can take a break and toast some summer movies for the escape or, at least, momentary distraction they offer our weary psyches. Hang loose, movie fans!