The Summer movie season has finally arrived, and as usual the first month is full of ambitious, expensive movies. However, The Avengers is the only one with guaranteed blockbuster status, and there are still questions surrounding the box office potential of Dark Shadows, Battleship and MIB 3. It's going to take an above-average performance from at least one of these other would-be blockbusters for May 2012 to top May 2011's record $1.04 billion.
Weekend One - 'The Avengers' Assemble
For the sixth-straight year, a major comic book movie is kicking things off on the first weekend of May. The Avengers could be the biggest of them all, though—after four years and five movies, fans are frothing at the mouth to see the legendary superhero team finally comes together in one giant action spectacle. Among the characters involved, the most-popular is easily Iron Man, who has led two movies to over $300 million at the domestic box office. Thor and Captain America played well last Summer, though neither were able to crack $200 million, and The Incredible Hulk earned a decent $134.8 million back in 2008.
The fact that most of the team doesn't have a huge hit on their resume is a little bit concerning, though the opportunity to see all of these legendary figures fighting together should make The Avengers exponentially more appealing than the individual outings. It doesn't hurt that the movie is receiving some of the best reviews ever for a comic book adaptation: with 52 reviews in, the movie is 96 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Current tracking suggests that the movie will open around $150 million, though it could wind up close to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2's record $169.2 million debut.
Weekend Two - Depp and Burton Return
Paramount recently moved The Dictator back five days, leaving Dark Shadows alone on May 11. This may turn out to be a good move, because the gothic soap opera adaptation is looking more and more like another hit for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. The director and actor have been working together for more than two decades, and their last two live action collaborations were their highest-grossing movies ever—Alice in Wonderland earned $334.2 million and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory grossed $206.5 million.
The Dark Shadows story is obviously not as well-known as either of those movies, and the content is significantly darker. At the same time, the movie is being sold as a broadly-appealing fish-out-of-water vampire comedy, and 70s tunes from T. Rex ("Bang a Gong (Get it On)") and Barry White ("You're the First, the Last, My Everything") give off a fun retro vibe. Of course, opening after The Avengers isn't the best spot to be in, but if anyone can pull it off, it's Burton and Depp.
Weekend Three - U.S. Navy Vs. General Aladeen Vs. Babies
After only one new nationwide release for the first two weekends of May, the third weekend gets crushed with three brand-new movies. With that much competition, there's a guarantee that at least one of them underperforms, and the one with the most on the line is Universal's mega-budget board game adaptation Battleship. Marketed as "From Hasbro The Studio That Brought You Transformers," and featuring plenty of Transformers-esque destruction, the movie's blockbuster ambitions aren't being hidden from anyone.
Unfortunately, the movie has next-to-no-chance of coming anywhere close to that standard—while the Transformers movies are natural extensions of their brand, Battleship's inclusion of aliens has generated plenty of cynicism (the game features straight-forward naval combat, with literally no aliens anywhere in sight). Battleship is doing solid business overseas, where it's already made $150 million, though it has also generated some poor reviews. Regardless of these drawbacks, the movie has a clear premise and looks to have serious "turn-your-brain-off" popcorn appeal, and it will have no problem out-grossing star Taylor Kitsch's last sci-fi movie, John Carter ($69 million).
The Dictator, which opens on Wednesday, finds Sacha Baron Cohen back in his wheelhouse playing a clueless foreigner, though unlike Borat and Bruno this movie is entirely scripted. Thanks to some clever marketing, including an Oscar red-carpet stunt, awareness is high, though it's unclear if audiences have any interest in a movie whose lead character is a psychopathic Middle Eastern tyrant. The Dictator does have the advantage of being the first R-rated comedy this Summer, though that didn't help MacGruber ($8.5 million) much in May 2010. Based on all of these factors, it's likely The Dictator winds up somewhere between Bruno ($60.1 million) and Borat ($128.5 million).
In a month loaded with big-budget, male-driven spectacle, What to Expect When You're Expecting is the most obvious example of counterprogramming. Based on the best-selling how-to book, the movie features an ensemble cast dealing with pregnancy and child-raising. The female-skewing pastiche of stories calls to mind rom-coms Valentine's Day ($110.5 million) and it's less successful spin-off New Year's Eve ($54.5 million), and pregnancy comedies have the potential to do huge business (look at Knocked Up and Juno, both of which made over $140 million). Unfortunately, previews specifically geared towards men haven't been terribly effective, and this has a good chance of being a niche movie that can't quite keep up with the big boys of Summer.
Weekend Four - The 'Men in Black' Are Back
After a ten-year absence, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones bring their most well-known characters back to the big screen for MIB 3. The original Men in Black earned $250.7 million, or the equivalent of around $428 million adjusted for inflation, and is extremely well-regarded today. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for its sequel, Men in Black II, which wound up with $190.4 million ($257 million adjusted) and an awful 5.7 rating on IMDb. In order to bring some life back in to the franchise, producers have added 3D and decided to send Will Smith's Agent Jay back in time to deal with a younger Agent Kay (Josh Brolin). That interesting twist, combined with the potent Memorial Day opening, should help put the movie on pace to come close to Men in Black II's total—anything significantly less than that should be considered a major disappointment.
A relatively late addition to the May roster is Oren Peli-produced thriller Chernobyl Diaries. When added to the calendar a few months ago, it seemed like this would be another found-footage flick, but trailers suggest it is a more straightforward horror outing. It also looks like the baddies aren't of supernatural origin, but are instead some kind of nuclear mutation a la The Hills Have Eyes. That movie made a fine $41.8 million in 2006, which is a good target for Chernobyl Diaries.
While the nationwide releases listed above will dominate most of the headlines (and earn most of the money) this month, there are a few limited releases to keep an eye on. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which has already earned $66 million in foreign markets, is being released by Fox Searchlight on May 4. It seems pre-destined to be a refuge for discerning older audiences who want to see a movie that's light on explosions. On May 25, writer-director Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom hits theaters, and his loyal following should drive the movie to earn at least as much as The Darjeeling Limited ($11.9 million).
Perhaps the most interesting release, though, is French comedy/drama The Intouchables. With the exception of The Passion of the Christ, this is the highest-grossing foreign-language movie ever with $328 million and counting. Aside from succeeding in its native country, France, it's one of the highest-grossing movies in years in Germany, is the highest-grossing movie of 2012 in Spain, and has been in the Top 5 in South Korea through its first five weeks. The movie clearly strikes a chord no matter what your background, and so it will be exciting to see how U.S. audiences respond to it.