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12 Movies for 12 Weeks of Summer

Hollywood has a message for summer audiences: Don’t try this at home.

Welcome back to the movies. Not only are major action pictures headed for big-screen theatrical releases, so are the same kinds of niche documentaries and intimate dramas that flooded streaming platforms after theaters shut down last year.

The coming weeks mark the arrival of movies that have been circling Hollywood for months if not years. It’s still a long way back to ticket sales before Covid-19, and a small number of high-profile films also will have simultaneous releases on streaming platforms. But early signs of pent-up demand have given the industry reason for hope.

Here, 12 movies for the 12 weeks of summer.

‘In the Heights’

June 10, in theaters and on HBO Max; Warner Bros. Pictures

It was one of the first big movies to get bumped from 2020. Now “In the Heights” plays as a sweaty, close-contact reminder of a world before Covid restrictions—or a celebration of their end.

The film, adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning debut musical, follows characters in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood as they grapple with the forces of family, cultural roots and ambition. The singing and dancing play out in tight quarters (in a bodega, a salon, a car service) as well as in streets and parks.

The movie was shot mostly on location in New York in summer, 2019. The massive Highbridge Park public pool became a stage for one of the movie’s biggest numbers, “96,000,” about a winning lottery ticket. Director Jon M. Chu marshaled the cast, hundreds of extras, and synchronized swimmers to pull off his vision of “an Esther Williams, Busby Berkeley number, but with people with tattoos and piercings and all shapes and sizes.”

Last December, when Warner Bros. announced release dates for its 2021 slate, Mr. Chu initially worried that the impact of “In the Heights” would be muted as a streaming release. Now, as a summer of reopening hits, the movie’s simultaneous release in theaters seems well timed, he says: “You throw a dart at the board for a release day, and it happens to land on the moment people are coming out and the moment we need this.”

‘Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway’

June 11, in theaters; Sony Pictures

Pandemic escapism arrives in the form of a self-aware rabbit movie that teases its own critics. Movie reviewers who knocked the first “Peter Rabbit” from 2018 may hear their words quoted back to them by animals in the sequel. It’s some mild needling from director Will Gluck, who wants viewers to know he’s well aware that his first movie ruffled Beatrix Potter purists.

“The storyline is about how people react to beloved literature being bastardized into Hollywood things,” he says. “A lot of the stuff that went into the second movie is taken directly from people’s reactions to the first.”

The animation-live action hybrid film stars James Corden as the voice of Peter and Margot Robbie as Flopsy, with some choice lines reserved for Sia’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson return as author Bea and her now-husband Thomas McGregor.

The new villain is a slick publisher desperate for IP who wants to capitalize on the Peter Rabbit brand. He pushes dumb ideas, like a book where Peter and his friends go to outer space. Bea is drawn in, though she warns, “I’d be spinning in my grave if it was ever adapted into some sassy hip-fest purely for commercial gain, probably by an American.”

“My movies,” the American director says, “are very meta.”

‘F9’

June 25, in theaters; Universal Pictures

Director Justin Lin returns with his fifth film in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, this time diving deeper into the back stories of key characters. Ticket sales are bound to be read as a bellwether for the box office.

John Cena makes his debut as Jakob, the wayward brother of Dom (Vin Diesel), and a skilled assassin (also, an excellent driver). The movie marks the return of Sung Kang’s character Han—a street racer and thief who was left for dead in an earlier installment.

Another milestone for “F9”: It will screen at the Cannes Film Festival, a highbrow embrace for any action movie. Universal Pictures calls “Fast & Furious” its most profitable and longest-running franchise. The car count alone is staggering: More than 12,000 cars have been used in all the films, according to the studio, with roughly one car destroyed for every 49 seconds of film.

‘Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’

July 2, in theaters and on Hulu; Searchlight Pictures

A drum solo by 19-year-old Stevie Wonder is one of many performances with goosebump potential in a concert film that amends the musical record of 1969. It unearths a festival held the same summer as Woodstock, but forgotten despite a stacked lineup, including Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, Nina Simone, the Staples Singers, and Mahalia Jackson. The Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week series of free concerts, was a cross-section of Black music in a powerful phase—all captured in high-quality video footage that went unseen for half a century.

Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo appear in the movie as members of the 5th Dimension, known for its “Aquarius” medley from “Hair.” It was one of the biggest pop hits of 1969, yet the group had something to prove to the audience of 50,000 in Harlem. “We were Black people but we weren’t doing too much performing for our own people,” Mr. Davis recalls in an interview about the movie.

“Summer of Soul” won top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. It was directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, leader of the hip-hop group the Roots, also known as the house band on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” His work on the film coincided with last year’s mass demonstrations for racial justice, which influenced the film’s tone and framing of events like the 1969 moon landing.

When Questlove interviewed the 5th Dimension members, he showed them their festival performance for the first time, and gave them a context they lacked then. “It wasn’t just seeing ourselves,” Ms. McCoo says now, “but what that whole concert stood for.”

‘Black Widow’

July 9, in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access; Marvel Studios

In an entertainment era when the passage of time seems to be measured in Marvel release dates, the studio’s streaming TV shows have kept things moving since its last multiplex releases two years ago. That’s one reason why “Black Widow” may feel like unfinished business for the fans who have long clamored for a stand-alone picture for Scarlett Johansson’s hero, Natasha Romanoff, who first appeared in 2010’s “Iron Man 2.”

The movie explores Romanoff’s origin story as a Russian super spy, and a reunion with her former comrades played by Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz.

To get their bearings, casual Marvel consumers should keep in mind that the action in “Black Widow” takes place after a rupture of the superhero team known as the Avengers (in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”) and before, of course, the demise of Ms. Johansson’s character (in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame”).

‘Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain’

July 16, in theaters; Focus Features

“Roadrunner” is the first in-depth posthumous look at the life of Anthony Bourdain, a culinary and cultural swashbuckler who wasn’t afraid to swallow a still-beating Cobra heart on camera.

Mr. Bourdain went from chef to bestselling author to food and travel TV personality. The film, featuring lots of early footage and interviews with his inner circle, chronicles Mr. Bourdain’s love affairs, friendships and prolific career as it searches to explain his 2018 suicide at age 61.

The movie, directed by “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” filmmaker Morgan Neville, is a character study of extremes. Mr. Bourdain is always in a rush, craving and shunning a normal life, taking refuge in humor and his love of language. In one scene, chef Éric Ripert serves his chain-smoking friend Marlboro cigarettes crushed into a cream with foie gras mousse. Finding the gesture hilarious and over the top, Mr. Bourdain savors his words. “This,” Mr. Bourdain tells the chef, “is like driving a

Rolls-Royce

naked in mink underpants.”

‘Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins’

July 23, in theaters; Paramount Pictures

The casting of actor Henry Golding as the G.I. Joe character Snake Eyes marks a significant moment for a movie industry with few Asian action heroes. In the film, he plays a broken man who is taken in by an ancient Japanese clan to learn the ways of the ninja. In the comic books, that character is blonde haired and blue eyed.

Mr. Golding, 34, who is Malaysian and British, downplayed the significance of his arrival as an action movie star. He described himself as joining a tradition of Asian actors—Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li—who injected martial arts into Hollywood blockbusters.

It was a leap for producers to see him in an action role given his hunky starring turn in the 2018 hit “Crazy Rich Asians.” It’s no accident that Snake Eyes doesn’t share a romantic kiss in the movie.

“What was interesting about Henry, and what was our initial hesitation, was that his fame came from a romantic comedy, not an action movie,” says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “So the question was to us as the filmmakers, ‘Do we believe him in this role?’”

To help answer that, the film opens with Snake Eyes in an all-out, no-rules cage fight. Later, the movie explores his internal struggles. In previous films based on G.I. Joe, Snake Eyes is silent and his face is often hidden, but in his origin story he speaks and is fully visible. “He was a big enigma,” Mr. di Bonaventura says. “Now you can get into him emotionally.”

‘The Green Knight’

July 30, in theaters; A24

Audiences expecting lutes and jousting, look elsewhere. This is a medieval acid trip set inside an Arthurian legend.

“I hope audiences are down to just get into the rhythms of it and go for the ride,” cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo says of the film from entertainment company A24. “It’s a very emotional and a very quiet journey.”

The film tells the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a myth about a mysterious figure that Gawain beheads on the condition that he face a similar fate a year later. Dev Patel plays Gawain. Alicia Vikander plays two characters: a devoted prostitute and, later, a rich woman who tries to seduce him.

Mr. Palermo filmed some moments with the camera so close to Mr. Patel, it actually touched his face. The movie, shot in Ireland, features majestic landscape views—the kind of immersive visual experience filmmakers call a reason to return to theaters.

The creative team wanted to avoid the gray look of many movies set in the Middle Ages, though the grime is realistic enough that Ms. Vikander’s street-urchin hair looks like it could hold a louse or two. The color green plays a big role, naturally, though Mr. Palermo said when shooting digitally, green can look too neon, so to deal with that he sometimes made the Green Knight and his armor look kind of…blue.

“When you have magic as part of your movie,” he says, “you can do anything.”

‘The Suicide Squad’

Aug. 6, in theaters and on HBO Max; Warner Bros. Pictures

Is the film a remake? A “soft reboot”? A sequel? James Gunn, director-writer of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies who helmed “The Suicide Squad,” doesn’t really care what people call it, just as long as they realize his R-rated take on this gang of supervillains is separate from David Ayer’s PG-13 “Suicide Squad” in 2016.

“It’s the most unique thing I’ve ever made because I had no rules,” Mr. Gunn says. He brought in new characters, including “King Shark,” a meme-worthy ocean predator on land voiced by Sylvester Stallone, as well as a giant starfish and a charming rat named Sebastian.

With the film, Mr. Gunn jumps from the Marvel universe of “Guardians of the Galaxy” to characters from rival DC comics. The filmmaker doesn’t take sides—mostly. “With ‘Guardians’ I know I’m speaking to children and 80-year-old people—I know it’s a family film,” Mr. Gunn says. “I will say, there’s a lot of fun in making an R-rated superhero movie. It’s a matter of being fully free.”

‘CODA’

Aug. 13, in theaters and on Apple TV+; Apple Studios

Emilia Jones plays Ruby, a high-school student who feels smothered by her parents, and dreams of leaving her small town to pursue music. These coming-of-age tropes hit differently in a movie about a teen CODA (child of deaf adults), in which American Sign Language appears in about 40% of the dialogue.

“You’re asking your audience to step into a family and a culture and a language that might be new, so some of those familiar elements bring universality to the story,” says writer-director Siân Heder.

Also counting on the movie’s ability to translate is Apple, which bought “CODA” at Sundance for $25 million, a record-breaking sum for that festival.

Deaf cast members include Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur (as Ruby’s parents) and Daniel Durant (as her older brother). The film’s perspective shifts around communication, whether it’s Ruby serving as her family’s de facto translator in their fishing business, or the family’s signed discussion during a concert of Ruby’s that they can’t hear.

Ms. Heder, who is not deaf, relied on interpreters to adapt the written script into sign language, and to act as go-betweens with actors. Eventually she and other hearing people on the film who learned sign also used it among themselves, she says. “We even signed on days when there wasn’t any deaf cast working because it’s a very useful set language.”

‘Respect’

Aug. 13, in theaters; MGM Studios

Aretha Franklin, who died in 2018 at age 76, handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her on screen in a project that has been years in the making. The cast includes Audra McDonald, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans and Mary J. Blige. The film isn’t a birth to death biopic, but a portrait of the Queen of Soul from childhood to age 30 while she forged her path as an artist.

“When I first pitched it to the studio, the way I described it was, ‘How does a woman with one of the greatest voices of all time not really know what her personal voice is?’” says director Liesl Tommy, a South African theater director making her feature film debut.

The film highlights Ms. Franklin’s upbringing in the civil-rights movement. The singer’s father, a Baptist minister, was one of

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

’s mentors. “Her actions spoke for her commitment and love for Black people,” Ms. Tommy says. “I wanted to make sure that Black people in this film were based in love. For me that meant every single character was three-dimensional.”

‘Candyman’

Aug. 27, in theaters; Universal Pictures

Saying “Candyman” five times while looking into a mirror became a scary prospect for many who watched the 1992 slasher film about an urban legend with a hook in place of his hand. The movie achieved cult status in part for its use of race as an element of horror: The Candyman was the specter of a Black man lynched for his romance with a white woman.

That subgenre of horror would be defined for a different era by “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller about whites co-opting the bodies of Blacks. In the wake of that Oscar-winning movie’s success, one of the first movie projects Mr. Peele signed up for was producing a sequel to “Candyman.”

Co-written by Mr. Peele, Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta, and directed by Ms. DaCosta, the new film stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as an artist who loses himself in the Candyman myth. The film, which adds gentrification to its themes, takes place in luxury lofts on the former site of the Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago, a setting for the 1992 release.

That’s 12 movies, but here’s one extra, for a baker’s dozen:
‘The Beatles: Get Back’

Aug. 27, in theaters; Walt Disney Studios

“Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson has gone from conjuring fantastical epics to excavating real ones from history.

As a follow-up to “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which brought World War I soldiers to life with enhanced century-old film footage, the filmmaker took on John, Paul, George and Ringo. He applied the digital wizardry at his New Zealand filmworks to 56 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio captured in 1969, including the Beatles’ final rooftop concert.

In addition to new audiovisual artifacts, the Disney release promises to revise the story of the group itself. A preview released by Mr. Jackson last year offered glimpses of the Beatles clowning around and huddled closely as they recorded the movie’s exuberant title track. That smiley vibe is at odds with the glum portrait of a band breaking up in the 1970 film “Let It Be,” the project that generated much of Mr. Jackson’s source material.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What’s on your must-see list this summer? Join the conversation below.

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com and John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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