Best Movies of Summer 2021: F9, Green Knight, Black Widow & More

summer movies preview

Left to right: F9, Summer of Soul, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, The Green Knight. Julia Cherrualt/Observer

Welcome to Observer’s 2021 Summer Arts & Entertainment Preview, your full guide to the best the warmer months have to offer. The finest TV, movies, dance, opera, streaming theater, the visual arts and literature this season await you.

While not quite as rare as the emergence of the Brood X cicadas, the 2021 summer movie season seems to carry some of that 17-years-in-the-making event’s momentousness — and also promises to be every bit as cacophonous. After all, we didn’t get our summer movies last year, not in the way we have every summer of our lifetime. Now the simple prospect of sitting down in a movie theater with twin buckets of soda and popcorn suddenly carries the epoch-making air of a coronation.

Then there are the movies themselves. Yes, we are once again getting the superhero fare that has come to dominate pop culture for the last decade and a half. But we are also getting intense family dramas, quirky adult-centered fantasy, physics-defying horsepower operas and even a zeitgeist-shaping documentary from the same guy who spun platters at this year’s Oscars. It’s more than the anticipation of seeing these movies in theaters that makes this summer one to look forward to; that notable diversity also marks this movie season as something singular. There are also a few summer rarities, including genre fare from visionary filmmakers like David Lowery, Nia DaCosta and M. Night Shyamalan, as well as the kind of Sundance-anointed prestige pictures we typically see in the fall. And thanks to the flurry of holdovers that were bumped off last year’s slate by the pandemic, several movies have had audiences hyped for nearly a year.

For once, it really feels like we will have a choice at the multiplex this summer, and not just between different movies that go boom (not that there is anything wrong with that). That fact alone promises to make the 2021 summer movie season a memorable one, even for those whose initial steps back into theaters will be tentative ones.

F9 (June 25)

Directed by: Justin Lin
Written by: Justin Lin and Daniel Casey
Starring: Vin Diesel, John Cena, Sung Kang 

It’s fitting that the return of summer movie spectacle season should kick off with something of a family reunion. As anyone who dared take a shot every time that word was said over the course of the franchise’s nine-film, $5.8 billion grossing run and then tried to walk knows, family is a bit of a Fast & Furious theme. But this time it’s literal, with Justin Lin — who oversaw four of the previous nine films — returning to the director’s chair, bringing with him Sung Kang’s Han Lu, a character who originated outside of the franchise in Lin’s groundbreaking 2002 crime film Better Luck Tomorrow and seemingly perished in 2015’s Furious 7. According to series patriarch Vin Diesel, the spirit of the late actor and series star Paul Walker helped guide the casting of John Cena as the film’s newest villain, a master assassin who happens to be, you guessed it, Diesel’s character’s brother.

The one problem with this family picnic? The rest of the world gets to eat all the potato salad before we get a bite. The film opened to the tune of $162.4 million in China, Korea, Russia and the Middle East a full month before it hits reopened theaters in the States.

Summer of Soul (July 2)

Directed by: Questlove 

That feeling of togetherness and community that we are all desperately thirsting for this summer may perhaps be most deeply embodied in this heavily hyped documentary. The debut film from The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) blew away at home viewers when it premiered at this year’s virtual Sundance, nabbing both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. But by exploring the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event 52-years in the past that featured jaw-dropping performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Barretto, Mahalia Jackson, Abby Lincoln and Max Roach, and many other Black and Latino American artists who were just ascending their political and artistic zeniths, Questlove pushes beyond the good vibes.

He also poses a crucial question, one that resonates even louder after a year of racial reckoning: Why as a culture do we fawn over things like Woodstock — the so-called “Summer of Love” that was taking place simultaneously 100 miles to the north and has already been the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary in 1970 — while ignoring Black and brown music, fashion and political agency? How much easier is it to dehumanize a group of people when you’ve disregarded their contribution? And if those who were making decisions about what films were made in 1969 looked like Questlove, would it have taken 50 years for this story to be told?

Black Widow (July 9)

Directed by: Cate Shortland
Written by: Eric Pearson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour

When Black Widow, the long-gestating first solo feature for the (late) great Avenger, got pushed off the 2021 calendar by COVID-19, it left the theatrical calendar without a Marvel film for the first time since 2010. This sudden shift appeared to mark the end, or at least a moment of dormancy, for the Disney subsidiary’s cultural dominance. Instead, like the MCU’s ever-morphing Skrulls, their output just shape-shifted, with fresh content in the form of WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier streaming on our home screens via Disney+.

Now Black Widow — featuring 2019 It Girl Florence Pugh alongside Johansson and poised to take her mantle (Pugh will continue the role in the forthcoming Disney+ series Hawkeye) — enters a very different Marvel landscape. In addition to at least four more Marvel shows to come later this year (including Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in June), the theaters have Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings coming September 3 and Chloe Zhao’s hotly debated ensemble piece The Eternals landing November 5. The question is, will Widow feel comparatively like yesterday’s news?

Old (July 23)

Directed by: MNight Shyamalan
Written by: MNight Shyamalan
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Ken Leung

The man who turned a trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house into a horror show with 2015’s The Visit, now looks to do the same for that other favorite summertime activity — a leisurely day at the beach. Drawing inspiration from Sandcastle, a French graphic novel by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, the supernatural ensemble horror film tells the story of a group of people who age a lifetime during a daylong visit to a tropical beach.

The first film since his debut that the director shot entirely outside of Philadelphia (Sixth Sense fans are already calling it “I see old people”), Shyamalan likely questioned venturing so far from home when the sets for his Dominican-based production were destroyed by a hurricane. And that wasn’t the only reason why the shoot was described by the writer-director as “risky;” it was also one of the very first movies to go into production during the COVID-19 outbreak. “I decided to go for it,” said Shyamalan.

The Green Knight (July 30)

Directed by: David Lowery
Written by: David Lowery
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton

If the movie business was run the way it should be — or the way it was four decades ago — there would be a lot more movies like The Green Knight. The film reteams A24 with modern fable-spinner David Lowery, who made 2017’s A Ghost Story for the taste-making independent studio and turned it into a critical and box office success. Sporting both practical and digital effects (the latter provided by Peter Jackson’s News Zealand-based Weta Digital), Lowery’s reimagining of an Arthurian legend is a rarity among summer spectacles in that it is chasing adults, not kids. Indeed, the film is expected to carry an R for graphic nudity.

The Personal History of David Copperfield’s Dev Patel plays the hotheaded member of the Round Table, Sir Gawain — Liam Neeson played the part in John Boorman’s 1981 late-night cable classic Excalibur, which also carried an R-rating — who sets out on a challenge-laden quest to face the emerald-skinned title character.

Stillwater (July 30)

Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Written by: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camile Cottin

To prepare to play a terse, Oakley-sunglasses wearing roughneck from Oklahoma, Matt Damon and Stillwater director Tom McCarthy embedded themselves with oil riggers in the bars, pubs and oil fields in and around Oklahoma City, where the film was partially shot. “They really opened up their lives to us, and their worlds and their families,” McCarthy, an Oscar winner for co-writing 2015’s Spotlight, told EW. “They were incredibly instrumental in helping us shape the story.”

Stillwater is the rare fish out of water drama instead of comedy, telling the story of Damon’s dyed-in-the-wool Sooner who jets off to Marseille and attempts to exonerate his estranged daughter (Abigail Breslin), who is being imprisoned for the murder of her lover and roommate. “It can be a very intimate movie and a very character-driven story, but there’s also a lot of scope to it,” says McCarthy. French actor Camile Cottin, star of Netlix’s Call My Agent and soon to be featured opposite Lady Gaga and Adam Driver in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, costars as a local mother who comes to Damon’s character’s aid.

The Suicide Squad (August 6)

Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn
Starring: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena 

When it comes to comic book movies, none bring anywhere near the anarchic energy of The Suicide Squad, not to be confused with the 2016 film that introduced the supervillain team-up and lacked the article in its name. This time writer-director James Gunn takes the reins, bringing with him the same winking comic brio that made his Guardians of the Galaxy movies the most irreverent in the Marvel Universe and — working outside the tightly controlled MCU — a much freer hand.

“They said I could keep [all the characters] or do away with them all,” Gunn told Total Film. “They said, ‘You can kill anyone.’” But the real agent of mischief here, and the secret sauce in the DC movies overall, is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. “I think Harley is a catalyst of chaos,” Robbie told Total Film. “She’s not necessarily your narrative center, and sometimes it’s great when plot points can rest on other characters’ shoulders, and she can be the thing that erupts a whole sequence of events.”

CODA (August 13)

Directed by: Sian Heder
Written by: Sian Heder
Starring: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Marlee Matlin

Shortly after debuting as one of the opening day films at this year’s virtual Sundance, Sian Heder’s remake of the 2014 French crowd pleaser La Famille Bélier made history, breaking a Sundance acquisition record when it was picked up for theatrical and streaming distribution by Apple for $25 million. (The previous record was last year’s $22.5 Hulu acquisition of Palm Springs.) In telling the story of a music-loving teenager (British actor Amelia Jones, of the Netflix series Locke & Key) — the only hearing member in a deaf family who own a fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts — CODA (an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults) also made a mark by casting deaf actors to play the deaf characters. (The French original was criticized for casting hearing actors.)

After becoming the first actor cast in the film, Marlee Matlin, who herself made history when she became the first deaf actor to win an Oscar for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, insisted on it over the initial objections of financiers“People think that deaf people are monolithic in terms of how they approach life,” Matlin told the L.A. Times. “This film bursts that myth.”  

Respect (August 13)

Directed by: Liesl Tommy
Written by: Tracey Scott Wilson, Callie Khouri
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald

From her shocking seventh-place finish in the third season of American Idol to her redemptive Oscar win for Dreamgirls just two years later, Jennifer Hudson’s career has seemed destined to include a starring role in high gloss biopic like this one. Respect tells the story of Aretha Franklin’s tumultuous rise as a Detroit gospel prodigy in the shadow of her superstar preacher father (Forest Whitaker) to become the internationally recognized Queen of Soul who has sold more than 75 million records. The film doesn’t just boast powerful women on screen. (Broadway legend Audra McDonald plays Aretha’s mother while Mary J. Blige depicts jazz vocalist Dinah Washington, an early inspiration.)

It also marks the directorial debut of South African-born theater director Liesl Tommy, who in 2016 became the first Black woman nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s tale of women surviving the second Liberian Civil War. Tracey Scott Williams, the playwright and Peabody Award-winning television writer of The Americans and Fosse/Verdon wrote the script based on a story she co-wrote with Oscar-winning Thelma & Louise writer Callie Khouri.

Candyman (August 27)

Directed by: Nia DaCosta
Written by: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, Nia DaCosta (screenplay)
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Tony Todd 

Growing up in Harlem across the street from the projects, Nia DaCosta, the 31-year-old director and co-writer helming producer Jordan Peele’s Candyman reboot, always believed the urban legend invented by writer Clive Barker and popularized in the 1992 slasher flick of the same name about the vengeful spirit of a 19th-century Black man who was lynched by an angry mob. Many months after completing the film, which was set to come out last fall, she is still not so sure. “I never have, and never will, say his name five times in the mirror,” DaCosta —who has already been signed up to direct The Marvels, the 2022 follow-up to 2019’s Captain Marvel — told Interview magazine. “It’s not in my nature. It just feels reckless and futile.”

What was very real was the emotion that DaCosta brought to her reframing of the story of an unwilling martyr and the madness and terror that was unleashed upon the world as a result of his death. “It felt like exorcising my own trauma of growing up in such a racist country, and doing it in my chosen language,” she said.

The Must-See Movies of Summer 2021, From ‘F9’ to ‘The Green Knight’