2021: The Return of the Movies

A reflection on the past year in film. From big blockbuster releases to continued uncertainty around the impact of COVID-19, 2021 has certainly kept us on our toes. 

Flashback to summer 2020 and the blockbuster movie season had all but been canceled. As municipalities struggled to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, governments ordered mandatory lockdowns in many places around the world. Understandably this had a very negative impact on the film industry because theaters had to shut down. This resulted in many delays of major films we had long been looking forward to, and brought up some very challenging questions about the future of a theater-fronted movie industry as a whole. 

Fast forward to 2021, and a lot has changed even if the spread of COVID-19 continues to be a significant problem. The most important film development of the year is the return of regular film releases in theaters. With lockdowns a thing of the past, and improved confidence in the effectiveness of vaccines (or at least reduced tolerance to being stuck inside our homes), people are returning to theaters in significant numbers. December 2021 is finally seeing a return to the level of ticket sales last seen in 2019. 

While there are still major releases being delayed for one reason or another, it feels like 2021 received a lot of the releases meant for 2020. This has resulted in a huge influx of major motion pictures being released into theaters. After having an entire year with almost no major movies released into theaters, it has been a big, and overwhelming change. Major releases are hitting theaters so frequently it can be difficult for audiences to catch up. Because of this we have seen very wide discrepancies in box office proceeds in areas where we would typically see some consistency. 

Ultimately what this means is 2021 is a year in flux for film. It has been a year that has been dominated by big-name films, often at the expense of the smaller ones. It is almost a 360 degree change from what we saw in 2020, but there are also a lot of indicators to suggest that the way the industry progressed this year is not sustainable. Add in the continued uncertainty regarding the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you have a situation where the path forward for the industry is not so clear. 

On one hand the return of stable box office gross will help pick up an industry that was really hurting for revenue. It shows audiences aren’t yet willing to give up the movie theaters even if they can watch some of the same movies at home. However, we don’t know yet whether the ticket sale surge is a temporary occurrence or not. Certainly audiences will continue to show up for the high-profile prestige pictures (MCU, James Bond, Star Wars, etc.) but the lack of box office success of moderately-budgeted original pictures this year is a cause for concern. Likewise, the lack of theatrical releases in 2020 certainly made people hungry to go to the movies again, but will they continue to do so consistently?

And while lockdowns are not as wide-spread as they were in 2020, the impact of the epidemic is still being felt on film sets around the world. Movies like Top Gun: Maverick have been pushed back to 2022 due to the impact of the virus, and Disney has announced delays on all of their MCU films slated for 2022 and 2023. In other words, many films which had their productions interrupted by the virus in 2020 are still being negatively impacted a year later. At the same time films which had been scheduled for a theatrical release are continuing to pivot to a split release between theaters and streaming platforms. 

As far as major trends in 2021 films, nostalgia seems to be the favorite. There was a lot of revisiting past franchises – some of them long-dormant. Space Jam: A New Legacy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Matrix Resurrections, and Spiral are a few. We got reboots of Mortal Kombat and Candyman, and nostalgic spectacles like Spider-Man No Way Home and Godzilla vs. Kong. There were also some examples of films which represented the “end of an era”. We said goodbye to Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die, while Black Widow essentially gave audiences a little bit of closure before opening the book for Marvel’s Phase 4.

However, most of the excitement in 2021 came in the later half of the year. Things got off to a slow start with a lack of major new releases. January 2021 saw the release of many films on streaming platforms that were Oscar-hopefuls, such as Pieces of a Woman, The Dig, The Little Things and the best-picture-winning Nomadland. However, Nomadland is technically a 2020 film because it premiered at the Venice Film Festival the previous fall. Besides these films, the only other notable releases were a few action and drama films which didn’t really resonate with critics or audiences such as No Man’s Land, Palmer, The Marksman, and Outside the Wire

February was much the same as January with a lot of films releasing that have since been forgotten (except for one film, Judas and the Black Messiah). It saw the release of some 2020 films that had been delayed and all-but shelved by studios, including Tom and Jerry, Barb and Star go to Vista Mar, and Wrong Turn. A few films with big-name actors were released, but didn’t have much success. Those include The Mauritanian, Crisis, and I Care a Lot. Interestingly, two prominent Korean films released this month (Space Sweepers, Peninsula) that DID find moderate success internationally.  

Things improved in March. The first major release of the year to hit theaters was the Disney animated film Raya and the Last Dragon. That paved the way for the first blockbuster release into theaters since Tenet in August 2020; Godzilla vs. Kong. Other notable releases in March include the streaming action hit Nobody, the streaming debut of The Father, the return of Eddie Murphy in Coming 2 America, and the very hotly anticipated release of Zach Snyder’s Justice League

Unfortunately, April 2021 did not maintain the movie-release momentum of March. The only big release which had some success was the reboot of Mortal Kombat. Otherwise, families found entertainment with The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and action junkies could stream Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. Other forgettable smaller releases include The Stowaway, The Virtuoso, and Thunder Force.

May was a positive development in terms of 2021 movie releases with the release of a couple hotly-anticipated films with Disney’s Cruella and The Quiet Place Part II. Fans of zombie films got a kick out of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead which streamed on Netflix, and Guy Ritchie released his newest film Wrath of Man. The Saw franchise returned with Spiral, but otherwise there weren’t a whole lot of other notable releases. 

June didn’t feel like a normal summer blockbuster season until the final two weeks, when we first saw the release of Pixar’s Luca followed by the release of the next Fast and Furious film, F9. The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard was a higher-profile release which was negatively reviewed, and In the Heights failed to find an audience in theaters. But up until those films, June felt a lot like the beginning of the year with a lot of the more notable films releasing to streaming services. No Sudden Move, Fatherhood, The Ice Road, and America: The Motion Picture all made their debuts on Netflix. 

The following month there was more excitement in theaters for audiences with the release of the first MCU Phase 4 film, Black Widow. Disney also released their adventurous blockbuster The Jungle Cruise, and the G.I. Joe franchise released its latest addition, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. Other high-profile mainstream releases include The Boss Baby: Family Business, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and The Tomorrow War.

Interestingly, July 2021 saw the release of a number of notable horror/thrillers we might have expected to release later in the year. These include Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, The Forever Purge, and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions. (I could also count The Green Knight in that category). In addition, there were drama films to choose from including Stillwater, Pig, and Joe Bell

For August, the fascination with horror films continued. The highly anticipated remake of Candyman hit theaters, and Don’t Breathe 2 became a moderate success at the box office (Demonic less so). Audiences really loved James Gunn’s Suicide Squad and the Ryan Reynold’s-starring Free Guy, but I can’t say the same for the other high-profile films released during this month. Reminiscence failed to connect with audiences, and The Protege didn’t make much of an impact. Likewise, the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect failed to live up to the hype. 

September 2021 was a crazy month with a very wide variety of films, many of them steeped in controversy for one reason or another. Starting in the mainstream realm, the month saw the release of an important comic book movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Dramas with high expectations included The Card Counter, and The Guilty. On the more controversial/violent side, there were releases of films such as  Birds of Paradise, Prisoners of the Ghostland, Kate, The Voyeurs, and Malignant

October got off to a hot start with Venom: Let There Be Carnage. On top of that you had the releases of two of the most highly-anticipated films of the year, No Time to Die, and Dune. Movies that took advantage of the Halloween season include Last Night in Soho, Halloween Kills, Titane, and The Addams Family 2. Wes Anderson released his latest film, The French Dispatch, and Ridley Scott did the same with The Last Duel

Horror-themed films continued into November with the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City. Disney provided us with another inspirational animated hit in Encanto, and another MCU film in The Eternals. We also saw the first few releases of Oscar-hopeful films, including The Power of the Dog, House of Gucci, King Richard, Spencer, and Tick Tick…Boom! On streaming services viewers had a lot to choose from, including The Harder they Fall, Finch, Red Notice, Home Sweet Home Alone, and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

2021 ended the year strong with a whole month of very eagerly-anticipated popular releases. Movies like Spider-Man No Way Home, Matrix Resurrections, and The Kings Man continued their respective franchises. Meanwhile, big-name movie directors such as Steven Spielberg, Joel Coen, Guillermo del Toro, and Paul Thomas Anderson released their latest films (West Side Story, Macbeth, Nightmare Alley, and Licorice Pizza, respectively). Other notable releases include Don’t Look Up, Sing 2, and American Underdog. 

Unlike in years’ past, it doesn’t really feel like any film from 2021 came out of nowhere to surprise and delight us. Part of the reason for this is that many of the years’ best-loved films also happen to be films which were delayed from 2020. That means we’ve had a lot of time to think about them and look forward to seeing them. On the other hand, the return of these big-budget releases have pushed smaller films aside. We’re so excited to see West Side Story that we overlook In the Heights, or we’re too busy finally being able to watch movies in theaters we forget about the ones available on streaming services. 

2021 was also a year where commentary about film on social media had had a significant impact on the behavior and decisions of the industry as a whole. Commentary about the state of the industry from legendary filmmakers has caused a significant amount of backlash against them and perhaps a tarnishing of their reputation in the eyes of younger generations. Relentless demands from spoiled fans resulted in Zack Syder’s Justice League, but established a dangerous precedent about how the behavior of a fanbase can essentially hold a film studio hostage. Likewise, connotations from poor box office proceeds and social media backlash against The Last Duel has made one of the year’s best films criminally underseen.  

All in all, 2021 has been a much better year for the industry as a whole compared with the disaster of 2020. 2021’s film output has more or less met the lofty expectations that were created from the delays of so many high-profile films, but hasn’t really exceeded them. Box office proceeds are trending up, and streaming services are still finding a way to be competitive with the types of films they release. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of potential issues looming on the horizon which the industry still has to deal with. At least in all of this uncertainty, the films of 2021 provided us with a measure of comfort and a taste of the movie-watching experience we had been missing. 

For a recap of the previous year in film, check out: Reflecting on a Year without Theaters

Previous articleThe Matrix Resurrections Ending Brings Trinity’s Character Arc to Its Logical Endpoint
Next articleJanuary 2022 Movie Releases
Managing editor. Fascinated by the history of film. "Film can teach us just as well as it can entertain us, and the things we learn from film can be much more beneficial to our lives than the short-term entertainment we extract from it."