Who woulda thunk it? The great showdown of the 2023 summer movie season pits J. Robert Oppenheimer against … Barbie. And there’s another twist: both may be Oscar contenders.
After five Academy Awards nominations, director Christopher Nolan may have found just the ticket with “Oppenheimer,” starring regular collaborator Cillian Murphy (“Batman Begins,” “Inception,” “Dunkirk”) as the father of the atomic bomb. But if mushroom clouds aren’t your thing, you can seek out the sunny skies of the plastic-fantastic world of “Barbie,” also opening on July 27. That one’s from three-time Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), who co-wrote the script with three-time Oscar nominee Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”); Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling play Barbie and Ken.
Let’s face facts: Barbie seems more at home in a movie theater in July. Although some prestige pictures trickle out as counter-programming, summer remains primarily the province of blockbuster cinema and franchise sequels. Indiana Jones will take his last ride, and Blue Beetle his first flight. As schools let out, theaters will mostly be catering to kids of all ages, with an emphasis on superheroes, action and family movies, although there’s always room for horror and a handful of comedies.
The Guardians of the Galaxy have already staked their claim at multiplexes, but a few big comic book movies wait in the wings. The hotly anticipated animated adventure “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” shoots its shot June 2, following up on its Oscar-winning predecessor “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Meanwhile, those sewer-dwelling pizza munchers get an animated reboot of suspiciously similar style in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” (August 4), which boasts comics fan Seth Rogen amongst its writers and producers.
“Cobra Kai” star Xolo Maridueña makes his big-screen bid as DC’s “Blue Beetle” (August 18), the first Latino superhero to get a live-action vehicle. The buzziest comic-book movie, though, has to be DC’s “The Flash” (June 16), directed by Andy Muschietti (“It”). A troubled production that’s already weathered scandals surrounding problematic star Ezra Miller and rumored to have gone through as many as 45 screenwriters, “The Flash” represents both a last gasp of the “Snyderverse” (Zach Snyder’s casting for the DC Cinematic Universe) and the first time the character of the Flash gets his own movie, sort of (bets are hedged considerably by the return of Ben Affleck as Batman, the return of O.G. movie Batman Michael Keaton, and the introduction of Supergirl, as played by Sasha Calle).
Not all big-name characters are superheroes, of course, This week sees the return of Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of the classic animated musical “The Little Mermaid,” whereas the title is the biggest star when it comes to Disney’s theme-park-inspired ensemble spooky comedy “Haunted Mansion” on June 28. In addition to Spider-Man, Sony has another name-brand in family entertainment this summer: “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” which takes the iconic children’s picture book into live action on June 30.
Paramount revs up three of its biggest franchises this summer, saying goodbye to one of them. “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” (June 9) continues the toy-inspired sci-fi action franchise that marries Godzilla to Hot Wheels, and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” (June 30) sees off 80-year-old action star Harrison Ford in his most iconic role, this fifth outing being the first not directed by Steven Spielberg (James Mangold takes up the reins). On July 12, Tom Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt returns for the seventh time in “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part 1,” after missing four release dates due to COVID delays.
If you’re getting the feeling that summer belongs to kid stuff, you’re not wrong, but grown-up cineastes will have a few options beyond “Oppenheimer.” Wes Anderson unveils his new comedy “Asteroid City,” stocked up with another absurdly stellar ensemble cast (I can’t begin to list them all, but the headline is that Tom Hanks replaces the scandal-damaged Bill Murray). Julia Louis-Dreyfus reunites with writer-director Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) for this week’s comedy-drama “You Hurt My Feelings.” Mark your calendar for the romantic dramas “Past Lives” (June 2) and “Passages” (August 4); foster-care drama “Earth Mama” (July 7); and London-based girl-fight drama “Scrapper” (August 28), all of which can use a little support staying afloat in a sea of branded intellectual property.
In the category of laughs this summer, you’ll also find some raucous and even raunchy options. There’s “No Hard Feelings” (June 23), starring Jennifer Lawrence as the sex mentor to a 19-year-old (Broadway baby Andrew Barth Feldman); “Joy Ride” (July 7), a “Girls Trip”-style romp starring Ashley Park and 2023 Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu; “Theater Camp” (July 14), a cheeky “let’s put on a show” comedy; R-rated talking-animal picture “Strays” (August 18), with the voices of Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx; Hulu’s sequel “Vacation Friends 2” (August 25); and horror spoof “The Blackening” (June 13).
Speaking of horror, you’ll find giant-shark sequel “Meg 2: The Trench” on August 4, and actor Patrick Wilson making his directorial debut with “Insidious: The Red Door” (July 7), the fifth in that franchise. A bit more off the beaten horror path are Stephen King adaptation “The Boogeyman” (June 2); A24 acquisition “Talk to Me” (July 28), a shocker from Australia; and “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” (August 11), a seafaring episode derived from “Dracula.”
Of course, there’ll be more where all these came from. I have yet to mention the summer’s Pixar extravaganza, “Elemental” (June 16), the latest Nicolas Cage scenery-chewing exhibition “Sympathy for the Devil” (July 28); the junior racing drama “Gran Turismo” (August 11), and Netflix’s summer of slate of movies to try to keep you home: action sequel “Extraction 2” (June 16), sci-fi comedy “They Cloned Tyrone” (July 21), and aspiring franchisee “Heart of Stone” (August 11), a spy actioner with Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan.
But can Netflix throw in the air conditioning for free? Theaters are crossing their fingers you’ll fill your arms with popcorn tubs and belly up to their bars, pay premiums for IMAX and Dolby Cinema, and generally make movies your habit again as the summer weeks fly by. And as you can see, they’ve got something for everyone.
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