"It's Omaha Beach. It's going to be a blood bath. There's not a weekend where there won't be teeth on the floor," Jon Favreau said in 2011. Sounds exciting! The director of the Iron Man movies wasn't referring to a specific action flick, however, but last year's unusually competitive movie schedule, which featured an expensive, would-be blockbuster every weekend. Favreau's underperforming Cowboys & Aliens became one of the casualties.
Studios and filmmakers won't leave as many teeth on the floor in the summer of 2012, which reduces the volume of noisy spectacles. This year spares us from return visits from Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Harry Potter, while delivering plenty of superhero films and at least one feast of destruction based on a board game. While some movies dress up familiar ideas in new trappings, like the reboot of Spider-Man, many sequels seem even more redundant than usual, including a third Madagascar, a fourth Ice Age, Tyler Perry's umpteenth Madea film, and Men in Black 3 (even though nobody liked Men in Black 2 a decade ago).
Big movies that attempt to launch lucrative franchises can chew up the best filmmakers, like John Carter did with Pixar's Andrew Stanton. Nevertheless, the writer-director team often offers the best barometer of how good a summer movie may be. Here's a rundown of some of the probable highlights, prospective sleepers, and a couple just too loud and dumb to ignore.
The Avengers (May 4). Marvel Comics' five-year cinematic plan comes to fruition with The Avengers, which, as per the original 1963 comic book series, gathers the Earth's mightiest heroes in a single team. Samuel L. Jackson steps from the closing-credits cameos to take the reins as Nick Fury, who unifies the likes of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, Chris Evans' Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. (Mark Ruffalo replaces Edward Norton from 2008's The Incredible Hulk.) Writer/director Joss Whedon's only previous feature was the cult sci-fi Western Serenity, but through the likes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," Whedon has shown not only an unabashed love of old-school hero stories, but a pop-savvy sense of humor in touch with the 21st-century zeitgeist. The banter may even be better than the action scenes. (Fun fact: In England it's known as Avengers Assemble, after the group's battle cry, to distinguish it from the beloved spy series "The Avengers.")
Dark Shadows (May 11). Johnny Depp dons the cape and pallid makeup of the recently deceased Jonathan Frid to play vampire Barnabas Collins in a big-screen version of the supernatural soap opera from 1966-1971. Although the original had a Gothic mood influenced by Hammer Studios' horror films, director Tim Burton, in his eighth collaboration with Depp, presents a comical take on the premise. Dug up after 200 years, Barnabas moves in with his flummoxed descendants (including Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, and Helena Bonham Carter). Dark Shadows will rise or fall on the strength of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, known for monster mashups like the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (the film of which opens in theaters on June 22).
The Dictator (May 16). Sacha Baron Cohen, alter ego of such prankish Euro-clowns as Borat and Bruno, has introduced his latest boorish character, Admiral General Aladeen of the fictional Republic of Wadiya, in such public venues as the Academy Awards red carpet. Cohen reunites with director Larry Charles and his writing team, but The Dictator isn't an ambush-based faux-documentary. It's a more conventional narrative comedy about a self-absorbed, dim-witted tyrant making his way in America. With a wardrobe inspired by Muammar Gaddafi and script allegedly inspired by the novel Zabibah and the King (published under the name of Saddam Hussein), The Dictator seems to ridicule dead tyrants more than live targets, but surely Cohen can rise above an Adam Sandler-style premise.
Battleship (May 18). Since the three Transformers movies have earned more than $2 billion worldwide, another Hasbro plaything gets the Hollywood treatment. In this case, Battleship adapts the board game of the same name. Rather than dramatizing the World War II naval combat that inspired the game, the big-screen Battleship presents modern-day naval officers taking on alien invaders who land on Earth and fight from ships for some reason. Writers Erich and Jon Hoeber adapted the forgettable comic book adaptations Red and Whiteout, while director Peter Berg's best film is probably the original Friday Night Lights. Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, and Rihanna are among the humans in the foreground of the CGI special effects. I predict that at the end the lead alien will say, "You sank my battleship!" in subtitles, followed by a huge explosion.
Prometheus (June 8). Director Ridley Scott has been coy about whether his scary new sci-fi film serves as a prequel to his 1979 hit Alien. The plot suggests that space explorers (including Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and Noomi Rapace), following clues that extraterrestrials visited Earth in the past, venture to another planet and discover that horseshoe-shaped spacecraft you may recall from the first film. The trailers are good, but even better are the short viral films, which feature a TED Talk from Guy Pearce's sinister industrialist and an ad for Michael Fassbender's commercially available android. If Prometheus lives up to the promotional material, it could be very good indeed.