It only took Marvel's eagerly anticipated Iron Man 3 three days to become the second highest grossing film of 2013, and by the time you read this it will have officially swiped the title from Oz the Great and Powerful. And so begins another summer movie season, which generally arrives at least six weeks before the calendar claims. The latest Tony Stark adventure is a strong candidate to top the box office this year, its only true competition arriving next November when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire attacks multiplexes across the country. Like most summers, 2013 seems destined to be dominated by sequels, with no fewer than 12 slated for release between now and mid-August. Also fighting for a share of profits will be several high-profile reboots and a large number of unknowns that will need critical backing and timely advertising to break through.
Iron Man 3 represents a pretty strong start and closes the comic book trilogy with a bang. There's certainly no thematic need for another chapter in the franchise, and if we see Stark again it should probably be among his Avengers compadres. Writer/director Shane Black's fingerprints are all over Iron Man 3, from the witty banter to several elaborately staged action sequences, the best of which calls to mind the first two Lethal Weapons (which he wrote). I also admired his audacity to pull a 180 in a blockbuster of this magnitude. A major twist in the second half will not please those who treat Iron Man's source material reverentially, but for your average moviegoer, it comes as a welcome surprise. With the exception of Rebecca Hall who is shamefully underused, Iron Man 3 gives everyone a chance to shine, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pierce, Jon Favreau, and in his best role in years, Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. But this is still Robert Downey Jr.'s show and unlike in previous entries, we're given deeper access to Stark's psyche when separated from his famous suit, which is refreshingly often. Iron Man 3 isn't perfect and has its share of holes, but come Labor Day there's a very good chance that summer's earliest offering will stand out as one of the season's best.
As for the rest . . . . .
SURE THINGS AT THE BOX OFFICE
Three of the most critic-proof blockbusters will be released during the last two weeks in May, marking a particularly front loaded summer. Star Trek into Darkness reunites the cast from the 2009 remake that surpassed commercial expectations and drew superior marks from audiences. I was never a Star Trek fan until that film, which remains one of more enjoyable hits of recent years, in part due to an extremely well-chosen cast. J.J. Abrams returns for his final turn behind the camera before taking command of Disney's rebooted Star Wars universe. The following week Fast & Furious 6 goes head-to-head with The Hangover Part III in a race too close to call. Expect huge opening weekends and substantial drop offs for both, as younger viewers will drive early receipts. While the first The Fast and the Furious was a lot of fun, future installments quickly disintegrated into repetitious mediocrity (I didn't see Fast Five), with the number of entries fast approaching Police Academy level. The Hangover series will close with the third, which is a good decision. The original was very funny and still plays well four years later, but the sequel was a lazy, unapologetic cash grab that basically offered the exact same film in a new setting. Part III wisely shifts the Wolfpack back to Vegas, but may need strong word-of-mouth to match the lofty totals of its predecessors.
The feature with the best chance to challenge Iron Man 3 financially is probably Monsters University, a follow-up to the very well-received Monsters, Inc. (2001). Billy Crystal and John Goodman will once again lend their vocal talents to bickering leads Mike and Sulley, who will return to theaters on June 21st. Though unlikely to match the Pixar juggernaut, Epic, Despicable Me 2, and The Smurfs 2 should all do big business with families over the extended school vacation. Two other familiar faces returning to theaters will be Adam Sandler and Hugh Jackman. Grown Ups 2 reassembles a parade of comics, most of whom became famous on Saturday Night Live. Grown Ups (2010) was Sandler's second biggest hit ever, so regardless of reviews the sequel should play to a broad audience and have legs. Meanwhile Jackman turns back to his iconic role in The Wolverine, which shifts the action to modern-day Japan. Famke Janssen (Jean Grey) is the only mutant from the X-Men universe to make an appearance, making this Jackman's movie from start to finish. But James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) is an accomplished director and should be able to inject some new life into the character.
Finally, the highly anticipated Man of Steel debuts in mid-June , bringing Superman back after the character's previous outing Superman Returns (2006) disappointed audiences around the globe. However, newcomer Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen)brings a unique style and reportedly darker approach to the most wholesome of superheroes. Trailers have been fantastic and the film boasts the summer's most accomplished cast, which includes Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, and Kevin Costner. Henry Cavill plays the title role. The geeks will rush out in full force for this one, although reviews will ultimately determine whether Man of Steel is one of several popular films or a smash that marks the start of a huge franchise (shades of Batman Begins). Time will tell.
WILD CARDS THAT COULD GO EITHER WAY
This is a heftier group than you'd usually find, in part because studios are taking chances on a lot of older material and stars. Exhibit A is After Earth, which would've been the event movie of the summer . . . . . in 2002. We don't know much, other than Will Smith is headlining the latest effort from M. Night Shyamalan. The former 'Fresh Prince' tends to open impressively during the summer, but this is anyone's call, considering Shyamalan hasn't made a good film since I was in college. Another release that seems years past its prime is The Internship, with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson (remember those guys?) as a pair of aging salesmen who must compete with younger, digital-savvy brainiacs at Google. The premise isn't awful, just tired, and I'm straining to remember the last Vaughn vehicle that was actually funny.
World War Z unites Brad Pitt with director Marc Forster, who has one of the most eclectic resumes in the business. But the latest zombie thriller may be too little, too late, as Hollywood has pretty much exhausted the subgenre at this point. World War Z seems more ambitious than most, but will need to convince adults that there's substance beneath all the mayhem. The Heat will attempt to capitalize on Melissa McCarthy's ongoing hot streak, pairing the comic actress with Sandra Bullock in a plot that sounds recycled from every action comedy ever made. One is an FBI agent, the other a cop, they are polar opposites, and have to become partners. It looks awful and seems beneath Bullock at this point in her career, but I have a sick feeling The Heat will draw big crowds.
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby might be the flashiest film of the summer, but reeks of familiarity and is already annoying me, partially because its release date was pushed back from last winter. I suspect this one would collapse with almost anyone else, but Leonardo DiCaprio is the main attraction in the title role and has a very reliable track record. I'm mildly intrigued by This is the End, with several celebrities playing versions of themselves at James Franco's house during the apocalypse. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogan wrote the script, which hopefully shares more in common with Superbad than The Watch. The cast, comprised mostly of Judd Apatow regulars and supporting players on NBC sitcoms, should lure in plenty of moviegoers.
Pacific Rim sounds completely disposable on paper, with no stars and a plot centered on giant human-piloted robots fighting an alien attack. However, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) has a habit of creating immersive, visually arresting worlds that transcend the imagination. Imagine Transformers with a competent director. You can flip a coin on this one, as well as for R.I.P.D., in which a recently deceased cop joins a unit of undead police officers to find the man who killed him. The concept fuses Ghost and Minority Report, tossing in zombie elements for good measure. With Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, and Kevin Bacon. Also winning points for originality, Elysium follows one man's mission to bring equality to an overpopulated Earth in the year 2154, when the super wealthy live in a private, man-made space station. Early buzz is promising for the thriller, which is the second full length feature for writer/director Neill Blomkamp (District 9). Matt Damon and Jodie Foster star.
If June's White House Down sounds familiar, it's probably because Olympus has Fallen is still playing in select theaters. But this encore presentation of a president in peril has a few advantages, namely a much hipper, commercial-friendly cast (Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods), and a director (Roland Emmerich) who's built an entire career of destroying landmarks, including the oval office. 2 Guns was rather unceremoniously dumped into early August, usually an indicator of less faith in a project's potential. But Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are two of the most consistent draws in the business. Their names atop the marquis should guarantee a triple-digit return for what feels like an 90s action flick.
Three sequels to 2010 releases hope to make their mark in later months. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters follows the well-liked, but slightly underperforming original, looking to make a bigger splash with the fantasy crowd. A more self-referential brand, Red 2 opens in July, also hoping to build on solid, though unspectacular grosses the first time around. Bruce Willis again leads an ensemble of respected veterans as retired CIA operatives. Though less successful in theaters than either of the others, Kick-Ass developed a loyal fan base through DVD and online streaming. The tale of a high school student who decides to become a super-hero earned strong reviews, and for the sequel has added the ever-manic Jim Carrey to the core group. Kick-Ass 2 opens on August 16th.
And finally, what summer would be complete without Johnny Depp playing a complete weirdo? Disney's The Lone Ranger debuts over the lucrative July fourth weekend as a tentpole with serious obstacles. Though Depp receives top billing, the title character is actually portrayed by Armie Hammer. The source material may appeal more to fathers who grew up with the 50s television show than their children and grandchildren, who represent the target audience. Also, at some point the novelty of seeing Depp in face paint making goofy expressions will wear off. On the flip side, the star's transformation from critical darling to headlining superstar over the last 10 years has proven as surprising as Downey Jr.'s. Depp anchored Charlie and the Chocolate Factory & Alice in Wonderland, and now reunites with Gore Verbinski, who directed Rango as well as the first three Pirates of the Caribbean adventures. With a friendly PG-13 rating, The Lone Ranger has the widest box office range of the summer, and could earn anywhere from 75 million to four times that amount.
To be sure, there will be smaller gems sprinkled throughout the season. Buzz is high for Before Midnight and Fruitvale, while the illusionist caper Now You See Me will attempt to find an audience amid larger releases in late May. Personally, if I could only see five new films this summer, I'd choose Elysium, Kick-Ass 2, Man of Steel, Monsters University, & Star Trek into Darkness, although it's pretty much a lock that White House Down will be my guilty pleasure for 2013.
Final Domestic Box Office Predictions for the Top 10 . . . . .
1.) Iron Man 3 - 390 mil.
2.) Monsters University - 325 mil.
3.) Star Trek into Darkness - 270 mil.
4.) Man of Steel - 265 mil.
5.) Despicable Me 2 - 245 mil.
6.) The Lone Ranger - 230 mi.
7.) Fast & Furious 6 - 225 mil.
8.) The Hangover Part III - 210 mil.
9.) The Wolverine - 180 mil.
10.) Grown Ups 2 - 165 mil.
See you in September.