Avengers, Dark Knights, and Hobbits: Anticipating 2012’s Biggest Movies

As if we needed proof we’re stuck in the era of the mega-franchise, all ten of 2011’s top moneymakers were sequels and/or superhero flicks. Moviegoers’ final visit to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, beat all contenders for the year’s box-office crown, and the folks at Marvel Studios had plenty to celebrate, because the big-screen debuts of Captain America and Thor each made over $175 million domestically.

Not surprisingly, we’re in for more of the same during 2012. Marvel’s cinematic onslaught continues with The Avengers (May 4), which features several of their characters in a spandex-and-superpowers jamboree; the super-lucrative Twilight franchise fades to black with the release of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Down Part 2 (November 16); and Men in Black III (May 25) brings alien-battling Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones back together 10 years after the last MiB movie. However, the biggest early contenders for the 2012 box-office championship are The Dark Knight Rises (July 20), reportedly the final Bat-movie for director Christopher Nolan, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14), the first in a two-part continuation of the Lord of the Rings franchise.

The coming year will have such an everything-old-is-new-again vibe that Daniel Craig will return for his third outing as James Bond in Skyfall (November 9), the release of which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the 007 franchise. Skyfall features some of the most impressive talent yet associated with a Bond flick, since the director is American Beauty Oscar winner Sam Mendes and the villain is No Country for Old Men Oscar winner Javier Bardem. For the record, Skyfall is the twenty-third James Bond movie. That’s a lot of martinis.

Luckily, there’s more to the movies in 2012 than just rehashes of past hits. In fact, the coming months will be filled with new films from celebrated auteurs, competing pictures about similar subjects (two sorta-different movies about Snow White, two very different movies about Abraham Lincoln), potential controversy-magnets like the terrorism drama Kill Bin Laden, and such star-driven entertainments as the sci-fi suspense flick Gravity, which costars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It’s too early to say which of these movies will disappoint and which ones will thrill, but as we open the book on 2012, it’s fun to peer into the future and hope for the best.

Directors Working Overtime. Auteurs releasing two movies in one year isn’t unprecedented (Steven Spielberg just pulled off this trick with The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse), but it’s still impressive whenever a filmmaker completes a pair of projects in quick succession. One luminary pulling double duty in 2012 is Tim Burton, whose summertime offering is the live-action vampire flick Dark Shadows (May 11), starring his favorite leading man, Johnny Depp, as bloodsucker Barnabas Collins; Burton’s autumn release is the animated Frankenstein riff Frankenweenie (October 5), a feature-length version of his cult-favorite 1984 short. Also cranking out two pictures this year is Oscar-winning experimentalist Steven Soderbergh. His mixed-martial-arts action flick Haywire (January 11) will be followed by Soderbergh’s comedy about male strippers, Magic Mike (June 29).

Fairy Tales Aren’t for Kids Anymore. As seen by the success of the TV shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time, Hollywood has reason to believe fans are ready for adult-oriented riffs on classic children’s stories. So, even though the 2011 feature Red Riding Hood was a flop, studios will release two versions of the Snow White myth this year: The fantasy-comedy Mirror Mirror (March 16), starring Julia Roberts as a character actually named “Evil Queen,” will be followed by the action-packed Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1), with Twilight star Kristen Stewart as sword-wielding adventurer. For the fairy-tale trifecta, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Atherton will play the title characters in the self-explanatory Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (March 2).

Gore? More, Please! For some moviegoers, nothing translates to a cinematic good time like the promise of onscreen bloodshed. These folks should get their wish with The Expendables 2 (August 17), which adds Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris to the mix of ’80s action stars returning from the first movie; The Raven (March 9), a serial-killer picture starring John Cusack as a fictionalized version of horror writer Edgar Allen Poe; Prometheus (June 8), the Ridley Scott-directed sci-fi horror epic that may or may not be a prequel to Scott’s classic 1979 shocker, Alien; and World War Z (December 21), in which the “Z” stands for “zombie.” That last one has a megawatt leading man (Brad Pitt) and an offbeat pedigree; it’s based on a novel by the son of beloved funnyman Mel Brooks.

Honest Abe: Movie Star. In a bizarre coincidence, America’s 16th president will hit the screen twice this year. This summer, Benjamin Walker will play Honest Abe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (June 21), based on the best-selling satirical novel, and at Christmastime, Daniel Day-Lewis will strap on the beard and stovepipe hat for Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic Lincoln.

The Next Big Thing? While everyone expects the latest installments in the Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, and Twilight franchises to make big money, the folks at mini-major studio Lionsgate are holding their breath to see if The Hunger Games, the first movie in a planned trilogy adapted from Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young-adult series, becomes a mega-franchise. If their expectations are met, watch for fast-rising leading lady Jennifer Lawrence, who already has an Oscar nomination to her credit even though she’s only 21, to become one of the year’s breakout stars.

Oscar Bait: The Next Wave. Even though we’re still waiting to see who wins Oscars in February 2012, it’s not too early to identify movies that will probably compete for prizes a year from now, and all of the following pictures scream “possible nominee.” Cloud Atlas (date TBD) is a complex sci-fi drama created by Tom Tykwer (director of Run, Lola, Run) and the Wachowski Brothers (of The Matrix fame); the picture stars Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon. The Great Gatsby (December 25) features Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Jeff, Who Lives at Home (March 2) is the follow-up from Cyrus helmers Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass; this one’s a slacker comedy with Ed Helms and Jason Segel. The film tentatively titled Kill Bin Laden (December 19) is a dramatization of exactly what the title suggests, and it reteams the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker team of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Moonrise Kingdom (date TBD) is the latest quirkfest from arthouse favorite Wes Anderson (Rushmore); the impressive cast includes Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Tilda Swinton. Finally, Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell follows up The Fighter with his comedy The Silver Linings Playbook (November 21), starring Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Chris Tucker (the Rush Hour star who hasn’t appeared onscreen since 2007).

These Reboots Are Made for Walkin’. Several franchises are hoping for a new lease on life this year, and the biggest gamble is The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3), which replaces outgoing director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire with new director Marc Webb and star Andrew Garfield; although pretty much anything would be an improvement over the last Raimi-Maguire outing, Spider-Man 3, it’s unknown whether audiences are still hungry for web-slinging. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether audiences will cotton to The Bourne Legacy (August 3), which has neither Jason Bourne nor Matt Damon, replacing that character-star combination with Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross. And although the following remakes don’t technically qualify as reboots, there’s no denying the reheated-leftovers patina surrounding a trio of ’80s flashbacks: The small-screen-to-big-screen revamp 21 Jump Street (March 16), the foreign-invasion thriller Red Dawn (November 2), and the sci-fi action epic Total Recall (August 3). Back to the future, baby!

Star Power. Some 2012 pictures merit mentions simply because of the sheer weight of their A-list talent. Justin Zackham, screenwriter of The Bucket List, is the writer and director of The Big Wedding (October 19), a romantic comedy starring Robert De Niro, Topher Grace, Katherine Heigl, Diane Keaton, Amanda Seyfried, Susan Sarandon, and Robin Williams. The aforementioned Gravity (November 21) literally has nothing but star power (except for the presence of actual stars, as in celestial points of light), because the entire cast comprises Bullock and Clooney as astronauts stranded in open space. Darling Companion (date TBD), marks the return of beloved writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill) after a hiatus of nearly a decade; the story of a couple divided by the wife’s devotion to her dog features Richard Jenkins, the very busy Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Sam Shepard, and Dianne Wiest, all of whom are past Oscar nominees or winners.

They Take Funny Business Seriously. Since one of the breakout trends of 2011 was critical acclaim for mainstream comedies (notably Bridesmaids and Crazy, Stupid, Love), it will be interesting to see if the goodwill continues. High-profile comedies with a shot at critical respect include My Mother’s Curse (November 2), the latest from Crazy, Stupid, Love writer Dan Fogelman; this road-trip flick costars Seth Rogen and the legendary Barbra Streisand. Steve Carell stars in the dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (date TBD), about a man looking for love before an asteroid wipes out humanity. Gross-out comedy kingpin Judd Apatow returns to the director’s chair for the first time since 2009’s Funny People with This Is 40, a spinoff of his 2007 hit Knocked Up featuring Knocked Up supporting characters Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). Lastly, Family Guy creator and voice actor Seth MacFarlane becomes a live-action feature director with Ted (July 13), a laugher about a teddy bear who comes to life; Mark Wahlberg stars with Mila Kunis, Joel McHale, and, as the voice of the teddy bear, MacFarlane.

Time for the Tough Guys. Every year needs a few movies overflowing with testosterone, and, notwithstanding The Expendables 2, some of the most badass-looking pictures of 2012 include Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, Argo (September 14), a satirical look at the ’70s Iran hostage crisis starring Affleck, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman; Django Unchained (December 25), Quentin Tarantino’s nervy action flick about a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter, with leading man Jamie Foxx squaring off against villain Leonardo DiCaprio; and Gangster Squad (October 19), a crime thriller set in 1940s Los Angeles with Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, and (offering a little estrogen to balance all that out of-control male energy) the fabulous Emma Stone.

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