What to watch at cinemas this summer: why 2021 marks the slow but sure return of the blockbuster

After a dismal year for box offices, the traditionally busy summer blockbuster season finally looks promising, with titles such as 'Wrath of Man' and 'Fast & Furious 9' scheduled to be released

Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. Photo by Laurie Sparham. © 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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The arrival of May traditionally heralds the beginning of summer blockbuster season. This year, things are certain to remain a little different, with cinemas still closed in many major markets, including much of Europe and Brazil, but there are signs that some normality is returning to the box office.

Cinemas in the US are coming back to life as vaccination take-up increases, with the two largest stateside chains, AMC and Cineworld, reporting most of their venues open by the end of April.

In the UK, meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said cinemas in England would reopen on Monday, after months of closure.

Hollywood studios are subsequently getting a little braver about putting films back in cinemas. The opening weekend of May seemed to offer promising signs for the future, even if it was slightly less blockbuster-laden than initially hoped.

The 24th film in the Marvel Universe, Black Widow, was scheduled to begin May's summer-curtain-raising first weekend, having been postponed from its original May 2020 release date, owingto the pandemic.

Disney played it safe, though, moving the film's release date to Friday, July 9. MGM happily filled the gap in the calendar with Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man (released on May 7 in the US and being released in UAE cinemas this weekend). It topped the US weekend box office charts comfortably.

The film opened to an $8.1 million domestic haul, according to cinema revenue tracker Box Office Mojo, and tripled that figure with international receipts, including an impressive $10m in Russia.

While that $8.1m domestic opening does not come close to previous May smashes, such as Avengers: Age of Ultron's $84.5m in 2015, it is likely to have been well received by cinemas and studios alike because, quite simply, it's what would be expected in "normal" times for a non-franchise flick starring Jason Statham.

If we discount the steamroller Fast & Furious franchise, and accept that The Meg benefited significantly at the bank from Chinese megastar Li Bingbing's presence, it's a solid return. The last comparable Statham film to open in US cinemas was 2016's Mechanic: Resurrection, with $7.6m in its opening weekend, making Wrath of Man right on target.

Over the weekend, Godzilla vs Kong edged closer to being the first Covid-era movie to take $100m in the US after five weeks in cinemas, reports Box Office Mojo. Its global haul of $422m is certainly respectable, as was its $48.1m opening US weekend.

The film has easily outdone its predecessor Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which pulled in $386m globally in 2019.

But there are still plenty of challenges ahead as the industry tries to recover from an incomparably difficult year.

L-r, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) brave the unknown in "A Quiet Place Part II.”
A scene from 'A Quiet Place II'. The long-awaited sequel is expected to be released in cinemas on May 28. Jonny Cournoyer

Many fans are likely to be wary of sitting in a room full of strangers, so Disney and Warner Bros have committed to same-day-releases on their streaming services this year. Other studios and distributors are also factoring some form of early video-on-demand option into their schedules.

While we should never be too confident of predicting the path of this most unpredictable of pandemics, the signs for the box office are, however, undeniably promising compared to last year.

Flagpoles such as Tenet, with no simultaneous online release, and Wonder Woman 1984, could only muster $20m and $16.7m openings in September and December, respectively, and both were released on extended holiday weekends.

(from left) Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Dom (Vin Diesel) in F9, directed by Justin Lin. Photo Credit: Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures
'Fast and Furious 9', which has also experienced delays owing to the pandemic, is expected to be released this summer. Universal Pictures

As summer progresses, we will have more to look forward to, even if things begin a little later and are less hectic. After all, some studios are holding big titles, such as The Batman, No Time to Die and Jurassic World: Dominion until later in the year, or even until 2022.

The final weekend in May is when things really get going, with the Disney spin-off Cruella, starring Emma Stone, and long-awaited sequel A Quiet Place II, squaring off in an old-fashioned box office showdown – remember those?

June then brings us Fast & Furious 9, The Conjuring: Devil Made Me Do It, big-ticket musical In the Heights from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson sequel Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard.

Looking further ahead, we have Margot Robbie and Jared Leto in The Suicide Squad, Space Jam: A New Legacy, starring Zendaya, M Night Shyamalan's Old, with Gael Garcia Bernal, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in Disney's Jungle Cruise, Hugh Jackman sci-fi Reminiscence and Marvel's first South-East Asian superhero in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

This is all topped off by a healthy dose of horror with sequels for The Purge, Saw, Candyman and Don't Breathe over the course of the season, as well as some original creepy content from The Ritual's David Bruckner with Sundance 2020 favourite The Night House.

It's true that some of our favourite big names are still, for now, frustratingly absent from schedules, but it's still the sort of packed theatrical line-up that was becoming a distant memory.

If that can't get the cash registers ringing over the summer months, perhaps studios should hand over to Netflix (which has some impressive releases for the summer) and concede that the greatest long-term effect of Covid-19 is sofa dependency.