As I’ve done on every New Year’s Day (or soon after) since 2015, I’m using the occasion of January 1 to offer up some not-so-bold predictions as to the biggest theatrical hits of the upcoming theatrical year. Now the 2020 and 2021 predictions are a comedy a terrors, since one was penned months before Covid took over and one was penned in the hope that vaccine availability would lead to something approaching normalcy.
We can debate “normalcy” in 2022, but I’m pretty confident that the big movies slated in 2022 (with one year-end exception) will stick to their dates. And to make this a little more intriguing, as always, this will be a “month by month” rundown. And yes, these will all be established franchise titles, Marvel/DC superhero movies and the like, so the hope is that some star vehicles and studio programmers can thrive alongside the tentpoles. So, without further ado, place your bets and here we go…
Morbius (January 29)
No, I don’t think Morbius, starring Jared Leto as “the living vampire,” is going to pull grosses anywhere near Venom. First, Morbius isn’t anywhere near as well-known of a Spider-Man villain/anti-hero as the “lethal protector.” Second, frankly Leto isn’t as beloved as Tom Hardy and is seemingly giving a more straightforward superhero star turn. Still, unless Scream (January 14) starts the year off with a happy surprise, rebounding from two ill-received (Scream 3) or commercially failed (Scream 4) installments, Morbius is the closest thing we’ve got to a “big” movie in the first month of the year. Venom earned $854 million in 2018, or about double what I viewed as an optimistic scenario. On a Covid curve and with related variables, what would have been halfway decent for Venom” would be just fine for Morbius, especially if audiences like it.
Death on the Nile (February 18)
I’d normally expect Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile to approximate Murder on the Orient Express’s $102 million domestic/$353 million worldwide cume. However, two years of delays, issues with older audiences showing up amid Covid and Disney’s mediocre track record with existing formally-Fox flicks has me hoping for a “successful disappointment” ($200 million worldwide?). However, unless Uncharted pulls off a miracle, despite being a years-past-its-prime adaptation of a decade-old video game series featuring Tom Chaos Walking Holland, Death on the Nile may be hot by default. Besides, older audiences won’t care about Armie Hammer’s controversies any more than they cared about him when Hollywood pretended he was a bankable star. Audiences enjoyed the previous Hercule Poirot flick, so it stands to reason, on an obvious “curve,” that they’ll show up here too.
The Batman (March 4)
A grimdark serial killer/political corruption thriller featuring Batman and “non-stars” (Paul Dano, Zoë Kravitz and Colin Ferrell) playing characters (Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman) we’ve already seen in previous Batman movies is not an automatic bet for sky high global box office. Recall that Chris Nolan’s dynamite Batman Begins “only” grossed $205 million domestic and $371 million worldwide. We should not weep if Matt Reeves’ The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne, must settle for grosses closer to Man of Steel ($668 million) than Aquaman ($1.148 billion). That will be fine if the budget is under $180 million and the movie is well-received enough to get folks excited for the sequel. One wrinkle: Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton showing up in The Flash (November 4) may leave Pattinson looking like a pretender to the throne.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (April 8)
The Secrets of Dumbledore (April 15) is the third installment of an indifferently received J.K. Rowling-penned Fantastic Beasts franchise whose last film (The Crimes of Grindelwald) earned miserable reviews, poor buzz and “just” $159 million domestic and $658 million worldwide (compared to its predecessor’s $234 million/$814 million result). Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the anticipated sequel to the surprisingly good and surprisingly successful Sonic the Hedgehog, which grossed $146 million domestic and $306 million worldwide. Sonic 2, adding Knuckles and Tails, may break out or may only slightly uptick (since adults and the casually curious may not show up twice) while Fantastic Beasts 3 holds firm overseas. Still, Fantastic Beasts is selling itself on decades-past nostalgia (Matrix 4) while Sonic 2 is a sequel to a well-liked movie (Sing 2) from two years ago.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (May 6)
Barring a shocking over performance for Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick (May 27), the first month of summer will belong to the first MCU movie of 2021. Sam Raimi’s culture cachet is as strong as it’s been in ages due to the rediscovered Spider-Man trilogy, while Benedict Cumberbatch has spent his post-Doctor Strange time both making a bunch of non-franchise movies (Power of the Dog, The Current War, etc.) and being a designated hitter in Avengers: Infinity War and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Throw in multiverse-hopping and fan bait cameos, along with the hopes that Kevin Feige let Raimi make a visually trippy horror movie, and you have the ingredients for a conventional MCU breakout sequel. Although on a Covid curve, and with China an unknown variable, anything approximating Doctor Strange’s $677 million global gross will be fine.
Jurassic World: Dominion (June 10)
The likely global champion for summer 2022 is still Universal’s Jurassic World: Dominion. Jurassic World earned decent reviews and strong buzz and grossed $652 million domestic and $1.671 billion worldwide, or more than The Avengers ($623 million/$1.517 billion), while Fallen Kingdom earned $417 million domestic (more than Wonder Woman) and $1.31 billion worldwide (just under Black Panther and The Last Jedi) with far less media attention compared to the MCU competition. Audiences like the IMAX-friendly spectacle, the giant dinosaurs eating people and that it’s one of the few biggies not centered on literal or figurative superheroes. With this trilogy capper teaming the new (Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard) with the old (Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum) alongside trilogy breakout BD Wong mucking up the works, the sky is the limit on Colin Trevorrow’s surefire blockbuster.
Thor: Love and Thunder (July 8)
It’s possible Minions: The Rise of Gru (July 1, and hopefully the last of the intended-for-2020 Covid delays) will stay the course for the $1.1 billion and $1 billion-grossing Minions and Despicable Me 3 while Thor: Love & Thunder doesn’t uptick much from Thor: Ragnarok’s $854 million cume. But that seems unlikely, as A) The Secret Life of Pets 2 and Sing didn’t/won’t earn anywhere near what their predecessors did and B) Thor: Love & Thunder is probably one of the more anticipated MCU sequels on the horizon. Taika Waititi is returning to direct, and he’s bringing Natalie Portman’s “Mighty Thor” and Jamie Alexander’s Sif from the first two Thor movies along with Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy too. Still, Illumination vs. MCU could be a close contest.
The Man From Toronto (August 12)
There’s almost nothing in August, which makes me wonder if Warner Bros. won’t move Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam back a week to try and be the last mega movie of summer via the same early August slot that worked for Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad. Otherwise, this original Kevin Hart/Woody Harrelson action comedy is the biggest August flick by default. Hart plays a “regular guy” who gets mistaken for a world-infamous assassin (Harrelson) via an Airbnb screw-up. The last time Patrick Hughes helmed an original star+concept action comedy, Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard parlayed a soft August into an unusually leggy ($171 million on a $30 million budget) run. Besides, even with Hart’s Fatherhood and True Story excelling on Netflix, the Upside/Night School star was still a butts-in-seats draw prior to Covid.
Mission: Impossible 7 (September 30)
Late September is a very odd date for a Mission: Impossible movie. I frankly wouldn’t be shocked if it gets pushed to summer 2023 just so Paramount has more than just a Transformers relaunch that summer, but I digress. Christopher McQuarrie’s Fallout capitalized on Rogue Nation ($592 million) by earning rave reviews and grossing $792 million worldwide, Cruise’s personal best. In a non-Covid time, and with a better release date, I’d argue this one (in what may be part one of a two-part finale) had a shot at pulling Spectre-level ($880 million) if not Skyfall ($1.1 billion)-level grosses, but we’re in wait-and-see territory. Either way, I imagine the first teaser (hopefully narrated by Henry Czerny) is going to be spectacular. Of the two big Paramount Tom Cruise action sequels, Ethan Hunt > Pete Mitchell.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (October 7)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnston and Hailee Steinfeld, was a huge hit for a superhero toon. It earned $190 million domestic from a $35 million opening weekend, making it the leggiest comic book flick since Tim Burton’s Batman. It earned $375 million worldwide on a $90 million budget. It also won the Best Animated Feature Oscar from presumed favorite Incredibles 2. It was so damn good/beloved that Sony and Marvel already gave us the live-action remake. If any film is going to be an old-school breakout sequel (whereby everyone who slowly discovered the first one shows up right away for the sequel) in the vein of John Wick (from $88 million to $171 million) or the first two Bourne films (from $214 million to $290 million), it’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse part One.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (November 11)
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther follow-up, starring Letitia Wright’s Shuri in place of the late Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, could suffer slightly due to not starring the first film’s title character. When part one earns $700 million domestic and $1.346 billion worldwide while nabbing a Best Picture nomination, maybe there’s nowhere to go but down especially absent “folks were just curious” audiences. A more crowded tentpole schedule might eat into post-debut business. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may have to settle for the vast majority of the money instead of “all the money.” That said, everyone loved Black Panther. Disney will push the “honor the man, honor the film” variable as hard as Universal pushed Furious 7 “for Paul Walker.” The “how” of a Black Panther movie without Black Panther may increase curiosity. Wakanda Forever will probably be the year’s biggest domestic earner.
Avatar 2 *or* Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom (December 16)
I’m assuming one of these films will move from December 16. I can’t imagine both undersea sequels directed by men named James, both following much-liked and leggy predecessors which earned huge global business ($2.8 billion in 2009 and $1.15 billion in 2018) including top-tier grosses in China ($209 million and $298 million), will choose to open head to head when they don’t have to. Will James Wan’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, again starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, blink first and swim to summer 2023? Will James Cameron’s Avatar 2, again starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, be delayed yet again and open in December of 2023? If Aquaman 2 stays, it could be (give or take China) another $1 billion-plus DC Films winner. If Avatar 2 stays, well, here’s your global champion for the year.
At a glance, I’d bet on Jurassic World: Dominion being the biggest global grosser of the summer, while Black Panther: Wakanda Forever nabs the year’s biggest domestic gross while (presuming it opens on schedule) Avatar 2 takes the global crown in a walk. One caveat, while we have no idea what will or won’t play in China, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is banking on China, as is Avatar 2. Avatar earned $205 million back in 2010 (in about 10% of the theaters now available) while a 2021 reissue earned $55 million. The optimistic hypothetical sees Avatar 2 earned Avengers: Endgame/Detective Chinatown 3 (over/under $650 million) grosses in China which offsets any downturns elsewhere and gives it a fair shot (assuming it makes us sh** ourselves with our mouths wide open) at $2 billion worldwide.
Conversely, Wakanda Forever (Black Panther earned $105 million in China) and Dominion (Fallen Kingdom earned $267 million out of $1.031 billion in China) don’t need to over-perform there if they play up to snuff elsewhere. The, uh, “battle” between Thor 4, Doctor Strange 2 and Black Panther 2 may be closer than we think, in an “everyone wins” fashion. As for DC Films, getting back into the game after a Covid-caused delay, expectations are different from all four films, as nobody should be expecting (especially before they’ve been sampled by critics and fans) The Batman, The Flash or Black Adam to pull Aquaman/Joker grosses, although I didn’t expect Aquaman top top The Dark Knight Rises either. Finally, I’m also hoping Pixar’s Turning Red (March 11) performs well enough so it’s not the last theatrical Pixar original ever made.