Ever since Steven Spielberg's Jaws ate up the box office back in 1975, summer blockbusters have been the bedrock of the Hollywood economy. Did last year's slump – attendance numbers were the lowest in 16 years – cause any doubts about stacking the chips on just a few summer weekends? On the contrary.
The 2012 lineup looks like a franchise-movie fire sale, with a train of $200-million special-effects-driven megamovies barrelling toward a global audience. With the debacle of John Carter apparently already forgotten, and the worldwide success of The Hunger Games setting the pace, this is shaping up as a record Hollywood summer. Here are the season's 10 biggest movies, designed above all to convince the tablet watchers and downloaders that, when it comes to impact, the big cinema screen is still where the action is.
1. The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)
At least until Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is released in December, this will be the biggest movie of the year. At 72, the Batman character is more culturally pervasive than ever, and almost obliged to surpass 2008's The Dark Knight, which topped a billion dollars at the box office and earned the late Heath Ledger an Oscar. A vertigo-inducing extended trailer, released along with last year's Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, revealed an airplane hijacking another airplane. Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman; English actor Tom Hardy ( Inception) plays the mumbling, muzzle-masked villain Bane; and Anne Hathaway slinks it up as Catwoman.
2. The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3)
This reboot of the Spider-Man franchise should help people forget the problem-plagued Broadway show – and the underwhelming if money-making Spider-Man 3 – and maintain the Spidey franchise as one of the most lucrative in movie history. Marc Webb ( 500 Days of Summer) steps into the director's chair, promising a more intimate approach, with Andrew Garfield ( The Social Network) as the new Peter Parker. Martin Sheen and Sally Field play Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Emma Stone is Peter's romantic interest. The villain? An old time Spider-Man fan fave, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a.k.a. Lizard, a former battlefield surgeon turned humanoid reptile.
3. The Avengers (May 4)
The Avengers may be the ultimate franchise-movie marketer's dream, a smart-bomb comic franchise that can be continually spun out from its characters. Joss Whedon ( Buffy the Vampire Slayer) writes and directs. If anyone can keep some humour and soul in this gang of supermisfits, it should be him. There's Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). With any luck, Marvel/Disney can keep the various Avenger permutations going to about 2030.
4. Men in Black III (May 25)
A decade after the last film, the Ray-Ban wearing alien-hunters are back, with Will Smith as Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K in director Barry Sonnenfeld's comic sci-fi series. Though the second film in the series lost much of its comic sharpness, the third incarnation looks promising: It involves time travel, with Josh Brolin as Jones's younger self back in the summer of '69, and The Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement as an alien assassin.
5. Prometheus (June 8)
This is Ridley Scott's not-quite prequel to Alien, the 1979 sci-fi classic that made erupting bodies the favourite horror effect of the eighties. Only this time, the eruptions take place in 3-D. Once again, a spaceship is heading off to a distant planet, when trouble starts. The cast includes Charlize Theron as a corporate type, Michael Fassbender as the ship's cyborg, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, and Noomi Rapace ( Liz Salander in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as a kick-ass archaeologist to rival Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.
6. The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 3)
Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have said at least temporary good-byes to the propulsively moving franchise after three movies. Obviating the need to cast a new actor as the amnesiac agent Jason Bourne, writer Terry Gilroy created an entirely separate story about agent Aaron Cross, played by the ubiquitous Jeremy Renner. (Along with his Avengers appearance, he's rumoured to succeed Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible movies.) Presumably the thinking was that The Cross Legacy would have had entirely different connotations.
7. Total Recall
There was strong reaction at CinemaCon (the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners south of the border) to footage from this one, director Les Wiseman's remake of Paul Verhoeven's 1990 science-fiction tale starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Based on writer Philip K. Dick's story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, it's a mind-bending tale of virtual travel, memory wipes and identity theft. Colin Farrell stars as a factory worker who discovers he once had a different identity. Director Len Wiseman ( Underworld) says the new version will be more psychological; the $200-million budget suggests otherwise.
8. Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1)
The first non-sequel/prequel blockbuster of the 2012 summer finds a new role for Twilight's Kristen Stewart as the pale princess with an Evil Queen problem. Forget Disney's animated version. This one is a full live-action epic treatment with monsters, CGI, and massed medieval battles. When Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) gets bad news from her mirror (sounding like Darth Vader), she commands a hunter (Chris Hemsworth) to knock off the upstart beauty. Instead, the two outsiders bond, go into training and plan a revolution.
9. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (June 22)
A product of contemporary mash-up culture, this film has a premise that wears its ridiculousness as a badge of honour. Georgian director Timur Bekmambetov made a couple of impressive Russian vampire war movies before his success with Angelina Jolie's action film Wanted, so he's familiar with blood-sucking, if not American history. That part will be provided by novelist Seth Grahame-Smith, also the co-writer of the script, in which vampires start the Civil War so they can enslave us all and suck us dry. Wait until Fox News gets hold of this one.
10. Battleship (May 18)
The source is, nominally, a decades-old Hasbro war game in which competitors stick pegs into holes on either side of a screen, guessing where their rivals ships are placed. But the real source seems to be the maximum-mayhem approach of Roland Emmerich's 1996 alien-invasion fantasy Independence Day, with its screen-filling explosions, collapsing cities and bizarre alien machinery; it's already done $100-million plus in foreign release. Peter Berg ( Hancock, Friday Night Lights) directs, with Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson and Rihanna as some of the earthlings ready to shoot back.