The good news is that after this past weekend, the year-to-date 2021 domestic box office is just 18.2% behind the same span in 2020. Within the next month, this year should officially become an improvement on last year’s unmitigated industry disaster. The bad news, however, is that the 2021 box office is still roughly 77% behind 2019’s ticket sales. Even when you remove the astonishing success of Avengers: Endgame from the equation, it’s clear that theatrical recovery is strained at best.
Fortunately, the back half of 2021 is overflowing with blockbuster tentpole features following more than a year of delays. Not only do many of these big budget titles carry significant potential as entertaining popcorn adventures, but also as much-needed injections of life to a scattered box office. Let’s run through our top options on the horizon.
No Time to Die (October 8)
On a base level, the never-ending delays for No Time to Die have played a role in further stoking anticipation, at least in Film Twitter circles. It was the very first major blockbuster to push back its release date in the pandemic and has, sadly, been pushing back ever since. That tantalizing build-up has rushed it atop many a critic’s most-anticipated.
Then there’s the fact that it’s Daniel Craig’s swan song as James Bond. Now this may be a generational divide, But Craig is among the very best — if not the best — 007s to ever order a martini. So to see him conclude what has been the most serialized and inter-connected stretch of Bond flicks ever is a highly enticing prospect with a lot of weight behind it. It’s the end of a novel, not just a middle chapter.
Lastly, it looks damn good. Cary Fukunaga (True Detective Season 1) is a talented filmmaker and, partly due to the delays, audiences have forgotten how well-received that first trailer was way back when. Skyfall surpassed $300 million domestic (and $1.1 billion worldwide) to become the highest-grossing Bond flick ever and Spectre cleared $200 million here at home and $880 million worldwide. No Time to Die won’t put up those numbers in these COVID-times, but it’s a good bet to earn a pretty penny.
Dune (Oct. 22)
As we’ve already covered in great detail, Dune is fighting an uphill battle at the box office. There’s a strong chance the $160 million-budgeted film struggles to post the blockbuster totals necessary to well and truly launch a new multimedia sci-fi franchise (there’s a sequel already in the works and an HBO Max spinoff). Relatively new-to-screen IP (discounting David Lynch’s flop from the 1980s) has a disastrous track record over the last decade. But creatively, the film boasts the potential to deliver one of the most compelling blockbusters in recent memory.
At a time when studio filmmaking seems to be adhering to a homogenized style, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) possess the grasp of heady themes, affecting emotionality and gorgeous cinematic eye to deliver something truly unique. An absolutely stacked ensemble cast, led by Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, doesn’t hurt either. After an avalanche of recent mediocrity, Dune can help rewrite expectations and capabilities for “commercial” tentpoles.
At the end of the day, an intergalactic romance between two of our most exiting young leads that will span past, present and future in a big budget sci-fi epic is more than enough to get us in the door.
Eternals (November 5)
Eternals boasts one of the most singular filmmakers the MCU has ever worked with in Chloe Zhao (Nomadland), the reigning Best Director and Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has already been open about her impact on the MCU filmmaker process with an insistence on location shooting, as much practicality as possible, and a deeply character-centric focus.
But what is most exciting is that Eternals will span 7,000 years of MCU history, finally freeing audiences from the same 80-year timeline we’ve been exploring for the last 13 years of the Marvel franchise. We’re getting a host of new characters with deep ties to overarching cosmic entities that can further diversify the Marvel-verse and these characters are brought to life with a supremely impressive and eclectic cast. Of all the upcoming Marvel projects, this feels the freshest.
Of course, Marvel is the safest box office bet in today’s narrowed theatrical landscape. Even with Premier Access eating into its box office total, Black Widow became the fastest film to reach $150 million domestic in the pandemic. Assuming the delta variant doesn’t grow between now and November, Eternals should be able to cross $500 million worldwide.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (December 17)
If any upcoming blockbuster in 2021 has a shot at $1 billion worldwide, most box office experts agree that it’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. Ideally, December is far enough out that 100% of American movie theaters will be open (84% were open this past weekend) and the Delta variant has more or less fallen under control (far from a sure thing). That juicy Christmas corridor is also famous for providing long and lucrative legs to tentpole features (see: Star Wars sequels, Aquaman, Avatar, etc.).
Tom Holland is the best live-action Peter Parker audiences have ever had, and both Homecoming ($880 million) and Far From Home ($1.1 billion) proved to be hits. With all the rumors of multiverse shenanigans that will potentially reintroduce Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s previous web-heads, fan anticipation is through the roof for No Way Home.
This will perhaps be the most tangible example of the multiverse in the MCU because it is (likely) connecting very popular previous iterations and characters and storylines all together. Such a move will prove tempting for both die-hard superhero movie fans and casual moviegoers with a passing memory of previous Spidey flicks.
The Matrix 4 (Dec. 22)
The original Matrix is the most seminal sci-fi film of the millennial generation. While the franchise went on to provide diminishing returns, it also is unabashedly batshit crazy. In a world where Marvel has a very defined color-within-the-lines style, and big budget would-be tentpoles like Mortal Engines and Snake Eyes are as bland and by the numbers as possible, it’s so refreshing to have absolutely no idea what to expect with The Matrix 4. Lana Wachowski unhinged and unfettered is only a good thing for studio filmmaking.
And to let Keanu Reeves, an international treasure and King of the Unproblematics, return to his most iconic role in some completely unknown way, is exciting and deserving given his cultural renaissance of late. Over three films, The Matrix franchise grossed upwards of $1.5 billion. Reintroducing the series to a new generation while enticing millennials who remember the originals back into theaters, particularly in the advantageous end-of-year sector, will provide a big boost to conclude 2021.