"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.
Moonrise Kingdom (June 15 in Atlanta). Instead of films made for boys, Wes Anderson makes one about them with his first live-action movie since The Darjeeling Limited. Set in the 1960s, Moonrise Kingdom looks like Rushmore Goes to Camp, as a boy scout and teenage girl run away from camp and home, respectively. Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Bruce Willis join Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. Hopefully, Anderson's wit will keep his twee impulses in check, as was the case with his previous film, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Rock of Ages (June 15). This jukebox musical tribute to 1980s hair-metal and glam became an unlikely Broadway hit, and an even more unlikely motion picture. Unified by a love story about two young people (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) who work at a music venue called the Bourbon Room and dream of showbiz success, Rock of Ages makes musical numbers from hits by Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Poison, and Starship. It looks kind of fun when Catherine Zeta Jones leads a group of censorious mothers in "We're Not Gonna Take It," but can Tom Cruise pull off the role of sexy rock star Stacee Jaxx? Hairspray's Adam Shankman directs the film, which might be more entertaining as a misguided disaster than a competent musical. Alec Baldwin, Mary J. Blige, and Russell Brand wear sizeable wigs in supporting roles.
Brave (June 22). Pixar may have the most respected brand in Hollywood, but a criticism that's stuck to the computer-animation studio is its lack of female protagonists. Pixar redresses this critique with Brave, a fairy-tale adventure set in medieval Scotland. "Boardwalk Empire's" Kelly Macdonald voices Merida, a rebellious princess with archery skills that rival Katniss Everdeen and whose opposition to tradition throws the kingdom into chaos. Mark Andrews, who helmed some of Pixar's funniest shorts, replaced the film's co-writer and original director Brenda Chapman. The voice cast also features Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson, Emma Thompson, and, of course, John Ratzenberger.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (June 22). With an asteroid on the verge of colliding with the Earth, a soft-spoken guy (Steve Carell) and his British neighbor (Keira Knightley) go in search of his childhood sweetheart. Lorene Scafaria's follow-up film to Nick & Nora and the Infinite Playlist features supporting players such as Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Melanie Lynskey, and Derek Luke.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Atlanta TBA). Speaking of the end of the world, this talked-about drama from the Sundance Film Festival sounds unlike any film you've ever seen. A 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) leaves her father's home in the Delta to seek her lost mother, even though melting polar ice caps not only cause waters to rise but also release prehistoric animals called aurochs. It sounds like a blend of Southern Gothic and magic realism.
Magic Mike (June 29). Why has director Stephen Soderbergh made a movie about a male stripper? My theory is that after his film Haywire challenged action movie gender roles with a brawling female lead, he wanted to make a film about a male sex object for a similar switcheroo. The plot looks a little like Footloose as Channing Tatum plays Magic Mike, the superbuff star of bachelorette parties, who contemplates a more dignified life of designing furniture and a committed relationship with a young woman (Lauren Horn). Matthew McConaughey plays a self-satirizing role as a former stripper turned club owner.
The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3). Five years after 2007's Spider-Man 3, Columbia Pictures reboots the arachno-franchise. The Social Network's Andrew Garfield now takes on the role of Peter Parker as a New York high schooler who becomes blessed/cursed with spider-powers. Emma Stone plays love interest Gwen Stacy, and Rhys Ifans takes on the role of Curt Connors, aka the Lizard, a brilliant scientist with a Jekyll-and-Hyde problem. While director Marc Webb's last name certainly suits the project, his only previous feature film was the stylish but too-cute rom-com (500) Days of Summer, so we'll have to see if he's up for the superheroic set pieces.
Savages (July 6). Battleship's Taylor Kitsch and Kick-Ass's Aaron Johnson star in this crime thriller as a pair of low-key marijuana kingpins who must resort to extreme measures when the Mexican drug cartels try to take over their operation. Blake Lively plays the woman they both love, while Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro portray villains. Don Winslow's novel blends the plotting of "Breaking Bad" with the violent swagger of James Ellroy's best work, and Winslow co-wrote the script with Shane Salerno and director Oliver Stone. Let's hope Stone doesn't take the book's extremities as license to go overboard.
Ted (July 13). Seth MacFarlane, creator of "Family Guy" and most of Fox's other animated series, makes his big-screen feature debut with this tale of a boy whose beloved teddy bear comes to life and becomes an unwelcome presence in his adult life. Mark Wahlberg plays Ted's hapless owner, Mila Kunis is his love interest, while MacFarlane himself voices the vulgar bear. It sounds like an Adult Swim treatment of Winnie the Pooh.
The Dark Knight Rises (July 20). When we last saw Christian Bale's brooding take on Batman, the Caped Crusader took the fall for murders committed by Gotham City's beloved Harvey "Two-Face" Dent. The sequel supposedly picks up eight years later, with Batman returning to save his hometown from Catwoman (a muscle-bound Anne Hathaway). It's hard to get a sense of the story from the spectacular trailers, and director Christopher Nolan will be hard-pressed to top the previous Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger's superb turn as the Joker. But Nolan has an excellent track record at matching lavish production with operatic, big-city themes.
Neighborhood Watch (July 27). Filmed in Atlanta, this sci-fi comedy stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade as four suburban guys who form a neighborhood watch group to take a break from their families, only to face a crisis involving — what else? — invaders from another world. The Lonely Island's Akiva Schaffer directs a script by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. Even if it's not good, it'll be fun to look for such familiar locations as Inman Park.
The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 3). What do you call a Bourne sequel without Matt Damon, director Paul Greengrass, or even the Jason Bourne character? Apparently you call it The Bourne Legacy and draft Jeremy Renner (who also plays the archer Hawkeye in The Avengers) as an intelligence operative caught up in high-level, cloak-and-dagger adventures. Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney, and Scott Glenn reprise their roles from the Damon movies, while director Tony Gilroy scripted the three films and earned Oscar nominations for Michael Clayton. Just because it's not necessary doesn't mean it can't be good.
The Campaign -- No trailer yet
The Campaign (Aug. 10). Will Ferrell plays a disgraced North Carolina congressman who faces an unexpected challenge from a political novice, played by Zach Galifianakis. Director Jay Roach might be best known for the broad humor of Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies, but he's recently made two of HBO's high-profile political docudramas, Recount and Game Change, so he may be able to ground The Campaign in enough credible political detail to give its humor some satirical bite.
ParaNorman (Aug. 17). A boy who can speak to dead people must try to avert a zombie invasion of his hometown in this 3-D stop-motion animated film. It's hard to believe that Tim Burton isn't involved with this. In fact, it's co-directed by Aardman Animations alumnus Sam Fell and screenwriter/storyboard artist Chris Butler. Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road and Let Me In voices Norman, leading a cast that includes John Goodman, Jeff Garlin, Tempestt Bledsoe, and Leslie Mann. The trailer's puckish use of Donovan's "Season of the Witch" sold me.