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11 potential sleeper hits that could break the summertime blockbuster blues

Featuring sharks, hitmen, car chases, and Charlize Theron headlining an action movie.

Atomic Blonde
Charlize Theron stars in Atomic Blonde.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When it comes to visiting the multiplex in the summer, you can usually split movies into three rough categories: the big titans, the under-the-radar question marks, and the indies.

Generally, it’s pretty easy to tell when a movie is in the first or last category. The titans get the most screens and feature budgets that often clock in well over $200 million. The indies are in arthouse theaters, and they rarely gross more than $30 million (unless they’re My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Nevertheless, they’re what you see when you need something aimed at anybody over 25.

But the question marks can be the most exciting movies out there. They’re often released by major studios but have smaller budgets, so they’ll get wide releases (meaning they’ll be in thousands of theaters), but they won’t have the huge marketing muscle of a Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Inevitably, one or two of them will break out and become “sleeper hits,” especially if they’re in a marketable genre. Lots of major summer comedy and horror hits, for instance, started out as question marks, including 2015’s Trainwreck and 2016’s Don’t Breathe.

But many of those question marks will also bomb, disappearing into the darkest reaches of your favorite streaming platform. “They made another shark movie in 2017?” you’ll think when you stumble upon it. “Maybe I’ll watch it!”

Of the countless under-the-radar question marks out there this summer, here are the 11 I think stand the best chance of both being fun to watch and becoming potential breakout hits. They’re arranged alphabetically.

47 Meters Down (June 16)

Summer just wouldn’t be summer without a shark movie. After all, the modern summer blockbuster season is rooted in Jaws, which rewrote the rules of the movie calendar back in the summer of 1975, and enjoyably dumb shark movies have been around right up through 2016’s The Shallows. This year’s entry finds two women trapped in a shark cage at the bottom of the ocean with limited oxygen and giant sharks circling them. Sign me up.

Atomic Blonde (July 28)

The buzz around this one coming out of the South by Southwest Film Festival in March was very, very high, and I’m not sure you even need a premise when Charlize Theron is starring in a film from John Wick co-director David Leitch. Action movies have had a rough go of it in the superhero era, but the stylishly violent films of Leitch and fellow Wick director Chad Stahelski suggest one way forward. (Leitch is going on to direct Deadpool 2 after this, which ... suggests a very different way forward.) Add Theron and you’ve got a highly intriguing mix.

Baby Driver (June 28)

Sony is so excited about this movie — the first from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright since 2014’s The World’s End — that it moved it from the doldrums of August to the much more competitive July 4 corridor. But if the buzz out of (again) SXSW is to be believed, Wright has made a tremendously entertaining film that functions as a musical where all of the song-and-dance numbers are car chases. Sounds great.

The Dark Tower (August 4)

When it comes to commercial prospects, this adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most beloved (and possibly most unadaptable) novels has an open road for most of August, as the last major release of the summer. It’s the creative aspects that are iffier with this one. The casting is great — especially Idris Elba — but Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (whose A Royal Affair was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013) is hugely unproven with this kind of massive, pulpy material. Still, if this can capture the vibe of the book, it should be a great, weird night at the movies.

Detroit (August 4)

There are a surprising number of adult-aimed dramas with weighty subject matter and impeccable casts arriving in the late summer, possibly making very early Oscar plays. This one hails from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, as her follow-up to 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. It tracks the events surrounding the 1967 riots in Detroit, which were spurred when police killed three black men and badly beat nine other people. Between the subject matter and Bigelow, this one could be tremendous.

Dunkirk (July 21)

If you forced me to put money on any movie in this list breaking out and becoming a smash hit, I would likely bet on this one. Director Christopher Nolan usually picks winners (including the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception), and World War II stories continue to be a draw. In this film, Nolan and a team of terrific young actors hope to recreate the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk by everyday British vessels in the early days of the war.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (August 18)

Late summer, when it’s too hot to do anything else, is just the time to escape into an air-conditioned multiplex to watch a dumb action movie, with two actors having a great time at its center. Do I expect this film — which pairs Samuel L. Jackson as a legendary hitman and Ryan Reynolds as the man hired to defend him as he heads to testify in court — to be a great movie? No. But I expect it to be fun, and in late summer, that’s often all that matters.

It Comes at Night (June 9)

As mentioned above, horror movies often break out as sleeper hits in summer, because the horror audience is loyal and often starved for something to see around this time of year. But this film — from distributor A24, which is beloved by film fans — boasts not just a great premise (two bands of survivors begin to distrust each other in a strange, post-apocalyptic setting) but also director Trey Edward Shults, whose 2016 debut film Krisha was low-key terrific.

Rough Night (June 16)

Some of the folks behind the very funny TV comedy Broad City, including Lucia Aniello and star Ilana Glazer, got together for this comedy about a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong, with a killer cast that includes Kate McKinnon, Zoë Kravitz, and Jillian Bell in addition to Glazer. The big question, though, is how well headliner Scarlett Johansson will handle being at the center of a comedy after years in the action trenches. After small but funny roles in films like Hail, Caesar, I’d bet pretty well!

Snatched (May 12)

Director Jonathan Levine hasn’t yet made a great movie comedy, but his 50/50 and The Night Before were both frequently charming and agreeable ways to spend a couple of hours. If he can manage the same — or better! — for this comedy starring Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer as a mother and daughter who are kidnapped and spend more time bickering with each other than their captors, then we’ll have a fun bit of counterprogramming to May’s franchise-heavy slate.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (July 21)

The phrase “under-the-radar question mark” was designed to talk about this space opera, which is the most expensive film in European history and the latest from Fifth Element and Lucy director Luc Besson. It’s based on a comic book that’s well-known across the Atlantic but really, really isn’t in many other territories (including the US), and its poppy visuals look gorgeous but are the exact opposite of the grimy look we’ve come to expect of modern blockbusters. I’d love to see this break out — but I’d be fine with it just being gorgeous and a lot of fun.

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