Damn summer. It gets us hard about hitting the multiplex, even though we know from experience that 90 percent of what we see will be supersize crap. Still, there's nothing like IMAX-big, Dolby-loud, school's-out escapism to bring out our inner geek. Hollywood's lined up more than 100 temptations: a prequel to Alien, a sequel to The Dark Knight, a remake of Spider-Man, an army of Avengers, plus stars (Downey! Sacha! Streep!), surprises (Tom Cruise sings!), Pixar dust in Brave and Oscar bait in Christopher Nolan's Knight and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. So here's my shortlist of summer movies (seen whole or in part) that may actually be worth getting gouged for the price of admission.
In Theaters: May 4th
"You better know how to be funny if you want to save the world," says Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon. In a summer crowded with action heroes in comic-book drag, The Avengers stands above the herd because of the humor embedded in Whedon's DNA. He packs the movie with a staggering six Marvel marvels: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who crack wise almost as often as they crack heads. As the scene-stealing villain, Loki, Tom Hiddleston says the only problem Whedon had directing this cast of star egos was "to get us to shut up and stop kibitzing so he could roll the cameras." The box office is already explosive.
In Theaters: May 25th
"Wes Anderson is one of the rising powers of American cinema," announced Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux, who chose Anderson's sublime Moonrise Kingdom to open the prestigious French fest on May 16th. Good choosing, monsieur. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Bill Murray excel in the cast of this tale of preteen romance between Jared Gilman and the luminous Kara Hayward during the New England summer of 1965. Anderson (Rushmore) is a one-of-a-kind talent, and Moonrise already stacks up as one of the year's best films.
In Theaters: June 8th
"I hope it stands up to Alien," says Michael Fassbender, who plays the android protagonist David in Prometheus. Amen to that, brother. Ever since word leaked that the film might be a prequel to director Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic, or at least contain strands of Alien, fanboys have been salivating. From what I've seen so far – in spectacular 3D, BTW – disappointment won't be an option. As soon as Scott sends the spaceship Prometheus on an interplanetary mission, the tension kicks in. Charlize Theron does a lot of corporate bossing around, but Noomi Rapace, as the ship's resident archaeologist, could be the MVP on this journey. And to watch Fassbender get his droid on in a hommage to Scott's Blade Runner is enough to set pulses racing. Did you hit YouTube yet to catch that viral-video tease showing Guy Pearce as tycoon Peter Weyland explaining the myth of Prometheus and its link to technology? Do it. Now that's what I'm talking about.
In Theaters: June 15th
"It's a challenge – I learned electric guitar, acoustic and singing." That's Tom Cruise. You heard me. As 1980s rock god Stacee Jaxx in Adam Shankman's film version of the Broadway hit Rock of Ages, Cruise is fueled by sex, drugs and ample doses of rock & roll. He's primed to tear it up on Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." Cruise is not the whole story, which zeroes in on two pretty young things (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) trying to make it in the killer world of Los Angeles music. There's also Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as club owners in love. But Cruise is the dude creating all the advance buzz. They're already talking Oscar.
In Theaters: June 22nd
"It was kind of scary being the first female lead in a Pixar film." So says Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, of Boardwalk Empire, who voices the role of Merida in Brave, an animated 3D fantasy set in medieval Scotland. The thinking is that boys will only accept boys as action heroes. Wake up, you dumb jocks. Merida is a firecracker, and Pixar has outdone itself in visual magic and vivid storytelling. Merida is a teen redhead whose skill with a bow and arrow could knock the stuffing out of Katniss Everdeen. But she isn't playing any hunger games. She's rebelling against her parents, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who want her to marry some royal dude. Sheesh! That's when she asks for help from a witch (Julie Walters), sparking funny and scary twists you won't see coming. Heads up, superheroes, there's a new kid in town, and Merida's out to beat you at your own game.
In Theaters: July 3rd
"There was no underwear between me and the suit." That's Andrew Garfield delivering the hard truth about what it's like to squeeze into the Spider-Man costume. The bigger question may be: Is five years too soon to reboot the Spider-Man franchise? Aren't Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi still fresh in our minds? I'm betting that Garfield and director Marc Webb ([500 Days] of Summer) are adding something new to the game. And what with Emma Stone playing girlfriend Gwen Stacy and Rhys Ifans doing the villain thing as the Lizard, this new Spider-Man could actually be as amazing as the title promises.
In Theaters: July 13th
"I want to make it clear that all these things are written by Seth MacFarlane, not me, and I didn't improvise any of it, and he's gotta take full responsibility for all the people he's offended." In this wussified manner, Mark Wahlberg absolves himself of all blame (and credit?) for this R-rated comedy about a dude (Wahlberg) and his dirty-talking teddy bear. Hey, Family Guy MacFarlane is making his feature-directing debut. Case closed. Be there.
In Theaters: July 20th
"Without getting into specifics, the key thing that makes the third film a great possibility for us is that we want to finish our story." And so, in the words of director Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises ends his Batman trilogy. Cue the tears. This will be the last of Christian Bale in the bat suit, fighting crime – in this case Tom Hardy's dastardly Bane – as a psychological night falls over Gotham City. Nobody really knows anything about this finale, though the trailer, currently on the Web, is a knockout. What's clear is that The Dark Knight Rises is the movie against which every movie this summer, this year, will be measured. Nolan is a true artist. His accomplishment goes beyond escapism. Nolan makes comic-book art. If you think you've seen everything, listen to the Caped Crusader: "Not everything – not yet."
In Theaters: August 3rd
"There is no taking over for Matt Damon – Matt will always be Jason Bourne." Props to Jeremy Renner for explaining that Aaron Cross, the CIA assassin he plays in The Bourne Legacy, is a new character. Damon can come back when the spirit moves him. My money is on Renner to give summer audiences the jolt they're looking for. Hell, he's Hawkeye in The Avengers.
In Theaters: August 10th
"I think the timing for this one is ideal," understates director Jay Roach. He's talking about The Campaign, a political comedy that makes a perfect run-up to the November elections. August usually produces one surprise hit. I'm betting The Campaign is it. How do you beat Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis playing dirty politics to win a congressional seat? Alexander Payne used a high school campaign to skewer hypocrisy in Election. And Roach (HBO's Recount and Game Change) is just the satirist to raise the stakes with the help of two comic icons.