Forget Superheroes and Aliens, What Will Be the Sleeper Hit of Summer 2016?

'Captain America: Civil War' was a guaranteed winner, but we take a look at some favorites vying to be a critical and financial smash.


Spectacle-event movies are now released every month of the year, but summer is still the season of big blockbusters and and even bigger box-office returns (well, for the most part). There was no question that Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War was going to make all of the money when it debuted at the outset of this year’s summer movie season, and it’ll most likely continue to make a mountain of cash until X-Men: Apocalypse hits theaters in late May. Pixar’s Finding Dory, another Disney franchise film, should swim away with more than enough box office returns, too.

But summer is also a time for some surprise breakout hits. We’re talking about the films that overcome the skepticism and become the one-two punches that delight critics and earn many times their budget (and more) weeks after their release. Last year, the big-sleeper winners were Trainwreck and Straight Outta Compton, movies with no comic book or sci-fi roots. So, which movie hitting theaters this summer will prove to be the big surprise hit? Here’s our odds-on favorites.

5. Now You See Me 2

Now You See Me was a major draw at the box office when it was released in 2013, and pulled an ace from its sleeve when it added even more star power for its sequel. Who knew a caper comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg as a magician who enlists a group of fellow illusionists to rob banks could be such a big hit? Three years later and Eisenberg’s conjuring crew is back at it again, this time with G.I. Joe: Retaliation director Jon Chu in the director’s seat.

While Now You See Me 2 will face some stiff competition, as it will be released the same day (June 10) as the fantasy epic Warcraft, and horror sequel The Conjuring 2. The movie is being positioned as definite counter-programming for those put off by Warcrafts convoluted video game mythology and The Conjuring sequels R-rated scares. PG-13 might put Now You See Me 2 in the right sweet spot to break through right in the middle of the summer movie season.

4. Ben-Hur

Director Timur Bekmambetov is nothing if not audacious. The Kazakh filmmaker wowed action audiences with the bullet-bending 2008 movie Wanted, confused history buffs with 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and had a hand in bringing this year’s technically bonkers Hardcore Henry to the big screen. But 2016 might be his most fearless creative year yet. His latest flick doesn’t involve secret assassins, zombie-hunting presidents, or first person P.O.V. Instead, it’s all about a biblical folk hero.

Actor Jack Huston headlines Bekmambetovs adaptation of Ben-Hur, and the mid-August release has some historic precedent. Movies based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by author and former Union general Lew Wallace aren’t anything new. It was first brought to the screen as a 1925 silent epic, but became ingrained in cinema history after director William Wyler’s 1959 version starring Charlton Heston. Biblical movies, like Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, haven’t performed well at the box office of late, and who knows if Bekmambetov can match the 1959 movie’s iconic chariot race, but a 3D swords-and-sandles movie might be the best antidote to the abundance of superheroes.

3. Sausage Party

This is not a Pixar movie. We repeat: this is not a Pixar movie. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s adult animated movie Sausage Party disgusted audiences and brought unstoppable laughter at this year’s SXSW — and that was just in its work-in-progress form.

It’s a clever premise: a group of anthropomorphized supermarket foods must band together to escape certain death (i.e. being cooked and eaten) once they’re taken home by a customer from the grocery store. The film is filled with big names who voice the food products, including Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, and Michael Cera. And it’s is poised to be unlike any animated film you’ve ever seen. The sheer ridiculousness and foul-mouthed comedy in the animated children’s movie form is enough of a conceit to get audiences in the seats, but there will have to be something extra to keep them there.

From the initial SXSW screening, it seems Rogen and co. have done just that. Per Joe Leydon’s positive review in Variety: “There is just so much novelty value one can milk from repetitious fusillades of F-bombs launched by animated characters — but it is difficult to deny the hilarity quotient of a movie so exuberantly and unapologetically rude and crude.” It looks like everyone should join the party.

2. Swiss Army Man

A24 has been a fine purveyor of challenging and significant films for four years now, and Swiss Army Man — a comedy about a man (Paul Dano) stranded on a desert island who bonds with a rotting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that washes up on shore — is no different. It’s sort of a bizarro mashup of Cast Away and Weekend at Bernies… after they’ve gone on a weekend bender on the best and strongest drugs possible. But it’s not just outrageous; Swiss Army Man goes beyond its outrageous premise of decrepit corpse farts to seem like something a bit heartfelt. The fact that it features Harry Potter himself makes the absurdity even better. The potential to be a complete WTF hit makes it too good to pass up

1. The Nice Guys

When you’re hot in the movie biz, you can get any gig you want. That’s the situation Shane Black found himself in after helming Iron Man 3 to the tune of $1.2 billion worldwide. Black is best known as the scribe behind stone-cold action classics like Lethal Weapon, and got his directorial career going with the cult classic, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in 2005. Then came the Marvel moolah, which gave him the clout to finance The Nice Guys. It’s one of those mid-range, buddy-cop comedies that don’t really get made anymore, and it took the guy that basically defined the genre nearly 30 years ago to bring it back.

Warner Bros. has smartly sandwiched the 1970s-set detective story in between superheroes; it will hit theaters two weeks after Civil War and a week before X-Men: Apocalypse. But it still won’t be easy to win this contest, as it’ll have to face serious comedic competition with Neighbors 2 hitting theaters on the same day. The frat-friendly crowd will definitely go with Neighbors, but the smart ones with superhero fatigue might go for The Nice Guys. The movie will feature Black’s signature wit with a bit of gunfire in between quips, as the trailer banter of stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling suggests, but The Nice Guys seems destined for the same admirable cult status as Black’s debut.

Related Tags