I'm an amateur industry-watcher at best; paying attention to box office grosses is a two-decade habit for me at this point, and something critics are probably supposed to ignore or, at very least, treat as an Oscar-pool-style game. But box office does affect the movies I'll see in the future, especially in the realm of action-fantasy-sci-fi stuff that I always hope will be good enough to give me that teenage summer-movie feeling.
Summer 2014 has its share of candidates to hit my preferred-blockbuster sweet spots: there's a new X-Men movie, a series has gotten back on its feet following a couple of poor efforts; there's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a follow-up to the surprisingly excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011; and a new Wachowskis movie. (I'm always interested in what they cook up, even if many are prematurely tagging Jupiter Ascending as possible flop-of-the-season status. I'll take another flop as visually arresting as Speed Racer any day!) At the same time, I wonder what summer movies might really hit that big-picture status for the rest of the country, because it's interesting to see what regular folks are enjoying at the movies, even if they're enjoying hot garbage served on an expensive plate. Nothing on the release schedule stands out as a clear box-office champion-to-be in the May-August corridor; pretty much everything seems destined to chart in around number three or four, which of course is unlikely barring some kind of box-office black hole event (to be dramatized in 3D, summer 2017).
Could this be the summer that no matter what comes out and no matter how it pleases a certain segment of moviegoers, the big franchises don't have any big breakthroughs? Will business as usual on multiplex screens actually be reflected in business weaker-than-usual at the ticket counter? It seems unlikely, yet vaguely possible. Many have tipped How to Train Your Dragon 2 as a possible summer champion; it's one of the only animated movies coming out, and it's a sequel to a surprisingly well-liked hit from four years ago. Yet plenty of animated sequels I'd assume would outperform their predecessors (Cars 2; Kung Fu Panda 2) failed to do so, and I'm not sure if the Dragon series is going to prove itself in a Shrek or Toy Story league in terms of adult crossover. Then again, I was shocked that some supposed adults would give a pass to the likes of Despicable Me 2, so maybe the era of hit-and-miss in animated sequels is coming to an end.
Transformers has been a reliable top performer in the past, and Mark Wahlberg is a movie star, so of course that four-quel will make at least $250 million or so. But it's hard to imagine anyone getting super-psyched for the fourth Transformers movie in seven years. Same goes for Spider-Man, really: no Spidey movie has ever grossed less than $262 million domestic. But that's also the amount that the most recent Spider-Man movie grossed, and none of them have ever topped the very first one domestically. It seems unlikely that the new one will break that pattern. X-Men: Days of Future Past is trying to pull its own Avengers (or, if you will, Fast Five) by assembling characters from all the different movies, and while it should be the biggest-grossing X-Men movie ever, there seems to be a ceiling of around $250 million on that series, too. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Godzilla have me excited, but they're nerdy (if hugely enduring) properties; a $200 million gross on either of them, while entirely possible, would also be a pretty big win. The box office champion, then, may well be determined by default: whether Dragon or Transformers can inch further past $300 million, or if X-Men can find the extra $50 million or so that it never has before.
In terms of mass-appeal excitement, the summer seems more notable for what's not there. Disney's reliable subsidiaries Marvel and Pixar are mostly sitting out: Marvel's Captain America sequel came out a few weeks ago, and Guardians of the Galaxy, their sole entry for the summer, doesn't come out until August. And Warner Brothers doesn't seem to pack any wild-card auteur moves like The Great Gatsby or Magic Mike—or, rather, it's one movie in that vein has been entrusted to Clint Eastwood, who appears to have dipped Jersey Boys in his drab period grays and browns.
I don't note this with any real sadness (well, except maybe how snoozy Eastwood's late-period movies have looked). Like I said, I'm into Apes and X-Men and Godzillas; there are also the usual summer counterprogrammers from indies, like Richard Linklater's Boyhood or the crazy-awesome-sounding sci-fi picture Snowpiercer. But from a distance, the summer movie superjet looks even more autopiloted than usual. The question is how many passengers'll ride along.