2021 summer blockbusters to make you fall in love with movie theaters again

The 'In the Heights' cast in the film's official poster.
(Image credit: Likely Story)

The summer blockbuster season is back with long anticipated films like A Quiet Place Part II, In the Heights, F9 and more set for release, which all could help reignite audiences’ passion for going to the movie theaters that has been waning in recent years.

In a 2020, pre-pandemic report, the Motion Picture Association said there were about 11 million people in the U.S. that would qualify as “frequent moviegoers,” meaning they go to the movie theaters at least once a month. That total was down from 12 million in 2018. Conversely, “infrequent moviegoers” — people who only go to theaters once a year — saw an uptick from 10% in 2018 to 11% in 2019.

The golden age of movie theaters as a frequent hangout seems like a long-gone relic. And after a year-plus of lockdown and social distancing practices, plus pushes by entertainment companies to make more content available at home, a trip to the movie theater may not seem necessary.

However, the theater experience is one that cannot be recreated at home. No matter how big your TV is, the space battles in Star Wars or the dessert in Lawrence of Arabia won’t look as grand as they do on a movie theater screen. Also, the ability to escape for two hours isn’t as easy when your phone, computer or other household distractions are right at your fingertips instead of being in a dark theater.

Also: Best movie theater subscription deals

In addition, if health and safety are among your concerns, it’s good to know that theaters have been committed to creating clean and safe environments to meet these times. Practically all theater chains in the U.S. are participating in the CinemaSafe program, which calls for enhanced sanitation efforts and saw many theaters improve their filtration systems, among other practices. The top three theater chains  — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — have said it’s OK for vaccinated moviegoers to go maskless in theaters, but mask mandates are still in place for unvaccinated people.

But, as always, the biggest reason to make a trip to a movie theater are the movies themselves, and the 2021 summer blockbuster slate has plenty of titles that demand that big screen experience.

Here are some of the movies that can help you remember why a trip to movie theaters is a worthwhile experience.

A Quiet Place Part II 

A Quiet Place Part II was the first movie I saw back in theaters after being fully vaccinated, and it’s a prime example of what the movie experience can be like.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept for A Quiet Place, aliens have invaded Earth and hunt humans based on noise. This has forced all survivors to remain as silent as possible to avoid danger. This can lead to an incredible movie experience as you watch the events play out in a quiet theater, where any noise, from a cough to a squeaky chair, can raise the tension.

A Quiet Place Part II stars Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Cillian Murphy and Noah Jupe and picks up essentially right where A Quiet Place left off, as the Abbott family struggles to survive as they are forced to leave their home for the outside world. John Kransinski once again wrote and directed the movie.

Many people have already enjoyed A Quiet Place Part II in theaters (where it is exclusively playing), setting a pandemic box-office record with a Memorial Day opening weekend of $57 million.

In the Heights 

Lin-Manuel Miranda is best known for creating the musical sensation Hamilton, but In the Heights was actually his first Tony-winning musical and now has a big screen adaptation, which audiences can enjoy starting June 11.

The story follows a community of Latin Americans in New York City as they pursue their big dreams and loves. Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smitts, Stephanie Beatriz, Olga Merediz and Miranda star in the Jon M. Chu film.

It’s easy to see in the trailer for the film that Chu and company have gone for a big, lavish production in the tradition of many great movie musicals before it. While In the Heights will get a 30-day, simultaneous release on HBO Max, there may be no better place to see a musical outside of a live stage performance than in a movie theater where you can be fully immersed in the song and dance of it all. 

F9: The Fast Saga

Action films usually dominate the summer blockbuster slate, and the Fast & Furious franchise has been a prime example of that, with each movie going bigger than the last. F9: The Fast Saga is sure to continue that tradition when it hits U.S. theaters on June 25.

F9 sees Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang and Jordana Brewster return, along with Charlize Theron as the villain who teams up with newcomer John Cena, playing Dom’s (Diesel) estranged brother. Helen Mirren and Kurt Russell also co-star. 

Outside of the Marvel movies, there probably isn’t a franchise that goes as big as Fast & Furious. F9 looks to do so with a plane that can magnetically catch cars out of the air and, possibly, a trip to space. F9 also shot in IMAX, so you know that these stunts were meant for the big screen.

Black Widow 

There are no certainties in life, but one thing that has been pretty darn close is that audiences will flock to a movie theater to watch a Marvel movie. Avengers: Endgame held the title of largest box-office of all-time for a little bit — Avatar got a re-release in early 2021 to put it back out in front — while MCU standalone films are reliable bets, with none of them having grossed less than $500 million worldwide since Captain America: The First Avenger.

After the delays of 2020, the MCU will return to theaters on July 9 with Black Widow, a prequel to the last two Avengers movies that will see Scarlett Johansson reprise her popular role as Natasha Romanoff alongside Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz.

Movies like Black Widow and F9 chose to wait a year when theaters were open again so that fans could see these films on the big screen (and they could make the most money off of those tickets, it is also a business after all).

Summer of Soul

Of course it wasn’t just a trip to the movies that were put on hold in 2020. Music tours and concerts were also delayed or outright canceled. Concert schedules are starting to get full again, but in case there isn’t one coming to you in the immediate future, Summer of Soul could help fill that gap starting July 2.

Summer of Soul (... Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a documentary that comes from Questlove and tells the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which promoted Black artists, music and culture. 

Along with interviews highlighting the importance of the concert, the documentary features full performances from legends like B.B. King, Gladys Knights and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone and more. A theater will help bring the concert atmosphere back until live concerts are full-go again.

You can also wait a bit and get a similar experience with a new Beatles documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, from Peter Jackson on Aug. 27.

The Green Knight

From director David Lowery, The Green Knight is a retelling of the legend of Sir Gaiwan (Dev Patel) and the Green Knight. After Sir Gawain chops the head off the Green Knight in a duel, the defeated knight picks his head up and tells him that he will return in one year’s time.

In addition to Patel, the cast includes Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Sarita Choudhury, Barry Keoghan and Ralph Ineson.

The Green Knight will bring an epic medieval story to the big screen on July 30, which will likely remind many of some of the best elements of Game of Thrones.

Jungle Cruise 

Giving the Mouse House a pass on The Haunted Mansion, the last time Disney created a film based on one of its rides we were treated to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and its subsequent sequels. So Jungle Cruise has a clear bar that it will look to meet as of July 30.

With Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt serving as the film’s two leads, it certainly has the star power you would want in a big budget action-comedy. And like Pirates, the ride appears to serve as more of a jumping off point for a bigger story involving ancient curses and attacks from German submarines.

Trips to Disney world or to foreign countries may not be feasible this year, so maybe a trip to the theaters to see Jungle Cruise can help scratch those itches.

Free Guy 

Video game adaptations don’t have a great track record with the movies, but movies that try to recreate the feel of video games — Edge of Tomorrow a prime example — have fared better. Free Guy looks to follow this mold, and has Ryan Reynolds to lead the way.

Reynolds stars as a bank teller who discovers that he is an NPC (non-player character) in an open world video game. He soon attempts to break free of the restrictions the game puts on him with the help of a player (Jodie Comer). Taika Waititi, Lil Rel Howery and Joe Keery co-star.

Explore the big, action-packed world that Free Guy is sure to provide on the big screen when the film releases on Aug. 13.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.