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The Verge fall movie preview, December 2018

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Mary Poppins is back, London is a giant murder-machine, Aquaman gets his own movie, and Michael Bay finally passes the Transformers torch in part 4 of our fall movie preview, which covers December 2018’s biggest films

Every year, the shift into cooler weather comes alongside a shift into a cooler box office lineup: fewer billion-dollar blockbusters, fewer on-screen explosions, and a general trend toward less slashing, crashing action and more intense emotional action. The one thing that really heats up at the box office during the fall and winter season is the awards race: the last quarter of the year is a time for Oscar-bait projects and intense awards campaigning. We started The Verge’s four-part fall movie preview with a September 2018 roundup that covered films from The Predator to Assassination Nation. October 2018’s roundup features Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Venom, and yet another revival of Halloween and its Shatner-masked slasher Michael Myers. November 2018’s roundup is full of sequels and prequels, with more movies in the Rocky, Harry Potter, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Wreck-It Ralph franchises.

And finally, with December 2018, we move on to new Spider-Man Miles Morales, James Cameron’s return to filmmaking with Alita: Battle Angel, a Transformers spinoff that feels like a weird fit for the holidays, and Mary Poppins’ return to London. This isn’t a comprehensive list of releases. We’re focusing primarily on titles of particular interest to Verge readers, with a tongue-in-cheek consideration of what these films have to say about the future of film, awards season, or the world we live in.

DECEMBER 14TH

Mortal Engines

The summary: In a post-apocalyptic future where resources are running low, entire cities have been rebuilt as vast machines that travel the landscape and attack other moving cities for resources. When two young people offend the powers that be in London (specifically a powerful leader played by Hugo Weaving), they’re thrown out of the moving city of London to survive on their own.

Why Verge readers might care: Director Christian Rivers is a protégé of Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson, and this film, produced by Jackson, has some of those films’ epic look and breadth. More to the point, the story, based on the first novel in a four-book series by Philip Reeve, is one of the most creative, weird, outsized visions of the future to make it to the screen in a long time.

Why they might not: The last really creative, weird, outsized vision of the future was in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and before that, Jupiter Ascending. Audiences avoided those movies in droves. Films that take viewers too far away from the familiar always face an uphill battle.

What it says about the future: While we’re unlikely to live in massive, mobile monster-cities anytime soon, Mortal Engines does put a science fiction spin on the real and growing issue of cities competing with each other for natural resources.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The summary: Mixed-race Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales finds out he’s his world’s version of Spider-Man when other versions of the superhero begin crossing over from other dimensions.

Why Verge readers might care: The trailers look spectacular: visually daring and experimental, jazzy and full of lively energy, funny and tongue-in-cheek but also beautiful. Also, after so many screen versions of Spider-Man, and especially so many retellings of his origin story, a film that departs this far from the predictable beats while keeping the character intact is pretty compelling.

Why they might not: Miles Morales, who became Spider-Man in one Marvel Comics continuity after Peter Parker’s death, has been a flashpoint in the confrontational debate about the gradual racial diversification hitting superhero comics. Some fans have taken his very existence as a personal insult to the Spider-Man they grew up with. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with a story that includes Miles and Peter Parker — not to mention Spider-Gwen.

What it says about the future: As enjoyable as Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are, offbeat projects like this offer some hope that the current superhero-movie glut will encourage filmmakers to tell a wider variety of stories, including some that don’t fit the MCU template.

DECEMBER 21ST

Aquaman

The summary: Fresh off his central role in DC’s troubled production of Justice League, undersea superhero Aquaman (Jason Momoa) gets his own film. The child of a human and an Atlantean, he’s caught between the sides of his heritage when surface-dwellers and his underwater kingdom go to war.

Why Verge readers might care: Justice League was the most promising of the DC movies to date, and Momoa’s Aquaman, with his rough, smirking humor and outsized version of macho, was a major part of that. And as much as the DC films have struggled to keep up with their ultra-popular Marvel counterparts, they’ve always had their adherents and loyalists. Director James Wan, who made his name on horror films like Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, seems like a potentially odd choice to helm this latest chapter in the DC story, but at this point, anyone who comes in and puts a fresh stamp on this dour, monochromatic series is welcome, just for the sake of variety.

Why they might not: Either you’re excited by the trailer’s promise of giant CGI fish-army battles or you aren’t.

What it says about the future: DC has a whole lot more Justice League-related projects in the works, including Justice League Dark, a second Wonder Woman movie, a Flash movie, and a Cyborg movie. But the company also keeps pulling projects on and off its schedule based on how the box office reacts to its latest project. So whatever the reception is for Aquaman, expect it to have an impact on the next several years of DC hero films.

Bumblebee

The summary: This prequel to Michael Bay’s 2007 franchise-starter Transformers takes place 20 years before the start of that film, and it follows Autobot scout Bumblebee as he’s discovered by a teenage girl played by Hailee Steinfeld.

Why Verge readers might care: This is simultaneously a beloved and loathed franchise, on both ends of the spectrum largely due to Michael Bay, whose five films in the series have earned Paramount more than $4 billion over the last decade. This is fans’ chance to see what the franchise looks like without Bay, and so far, the answer seems to be a more personal and small-scale story. Director Travis Knight is the president and CEO of the animation studio Laika, which produced the personable, weird, elaborate stop-motion fantasies Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. He broke into directing with the Laika film Kubo and the Two Strings, but this is his first live-action project. Following in Michael Bay’s bombastic footsteps seems like a strange next step for a man who’s previously spent his time on the meticulous, patient art of stop-motion, so who knows how this will come out.

Why they might not: The Transformers movies have been on a steady downhill box office slide since the series’s second movie, 2009’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. They’re certainly still profitable and popular, but the latest film in the series, Transformers: The Last Knight, made less than a third of what Dark of the Moon made in the American box office, which certainly suggests a waning domestic appetite for these films. And this is yet another prequel with a foreordained conclusion and an opening — young human finds rusted-out car, is surprised to find it’s a robot who can’t speak but makes friends with it — that seems mighty familiar from Bay’s first Transformers.

What it says about the future: With Michael Bay vowing to stay away from the series, the doors are open for a wide variety of new voices and takes on the series — assuming this one does well enough to justify the series continuing.

Alita: Battle Angel

The summary: In a future strongly stratified between the haves and have-nots, the rich elite live in a floating city above the junkyard wreckage where the poor survive on whatever they can scrounge. When a man finds and repairs a broken android (Rosa Salazar, in a mocap performance), he sets off a wave of unexpected violence as others come looking for her.

Why Verge readers might care: Director James Cameron has spent nearly a decade off in the trenches of his repeatedly delayed Avatar sequels, which supposedly will now arrive in theaters in 2020. But he’s still keeping a hand in cinema, in this case by writing and producing an adaptation of a popular manga series he’s been sitting on for nearly 20 years. Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Grindhouse, Machete) another special effects guru who’s spent his career developing the scrappy home trailer version of Cameron’s groundbreaking effects work, directed the film, which has previously been a stunningly pretty and tragic anime series.

Why they might not: See above on Mortal Engines, regarding the ways elaborate, nearly unrecognizable futures can be hard sells. In this case, the film showcases a future that looks plenty familiar in anime and science fiction novels: a cluttered, rusted-out world that’s a little cyberpunk, a little steampunk, and a whole lot of classic anime series like Mobile Suit Gundam. But mainstream American audiences are less likely to find it recognizable and appealing.

What it says about the future: Mostly that Cameron is still capable of bringing a film to fruition, no matter how long it’s been sitting fallow in his junk drawer. Any bets on whether the planned 2020 Avatar-athon will actually happen?

Welcome to Marwen

The summary: After losing his memory in a senseless attack that nearly kills him, a man (Steve Carell) reconstructs his past out of dolls and toys, building an elaborate fantasy world that helps him cope with his loss, confusion, and rage.

Why Verge readers might care: Leave it to director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) to find the splashiest, most effects-driven way to tell the real-life story of artist Mark Hogancamp, who rose to fame based on his photographs of a world he built as therapy after he was beaten into a coma by five men. This star-studded film, featuring Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie and singer Janelle Monáe, among others, looks like one of the season’s biggest awards-grabs: it’s a tender, emotional, colorfully told story of personal triumph against terrible odds.

Why they might not: Zemeckis’ films tend to slather that emotion on broadly and relentlessly, and viewers may or may not be willing to buy into the way he plays out Hogancamp’s fantasies, with plenty of scenes of the dolls strutting around, living out scenes from his past, or protecting him in the present.

What it says about the future: This particular form of visual wizardry, with real people’s faces mapped onto all sorts of unreal things, is becoming a lot more common and familiar lately, and it’s likely to keep coming up as a shorthanded way of making all sorts of fantasy beasties feel more elaborately acted and recognizably human.

Mary Poppins Returns

The summary: Jane and Michael Banks, the kids from the original 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins, are now adults played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw, and they’re suffering their own tragedies. That brings their old problem-solving magical nanny Mary Poppins back to, as Disney’s summary says, help them “rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives.”

Why Verge readers might care: Like Jane and Michael, an awful lot of kids grew up with Mary Poppins, and they might be intrigued to see her return, now played with crisp exactitude by Emily Blunt. The original Disney movie didn’t capture much of the story or tone of P.L. Travers’ original Mary Poppins novels, which are a lot snarkier and stranger than the adaptation. So this new sequel has a lot of material to draw from.

Why they might not: Didn’t we just have this exact plot in Christopher Robin? And aren’t they both just retreads of Hook? And even if this film claims new ground, is director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) capable of making a movie that doesn’t feel big, loud, glossy, and empty?

What it says about the future: Disney’s nostalgia train is just picking up more speed every year. Combine that with the perennial trope of too-serious adults who need to learn how to be young again, and you have a predictable formula for any live-action Disney retread.

DECEMBER 25TH

On the Basis of Sex

The summary: The Leftovers director and producer Mimi Leder helms this biopic of eventual Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (played by Felicity Jones) during a landmark period where she fought institutional and legal sexism via a landmark court case.

Why Verge readers might care: With a potential new Supreme Court Justice currently in the news, this film feels particularly up-to-the-moment, especially since Ginsberg is riding a wave of personal, social media-driven fandom that feels unprecedented for a member of the court. Supported by the much-praised documentary RBG, she’s become a cult figure. This film covers a key part of her history, and in an era where gender equality is still a constant, newsworthy battleground, this looks like a pocket education in an earlier step of the process.

Why they might not: Prestige-season biopics are risky business since they’re so often formulaic uplift-machines that are designed to shove the audience’s emotions through preordained motions of sadness, anger, and renewed hope. A lot of these films come in with some Oscar buzz and blow out again without making any kind of impact at the box office or on the culture. Here’s hoping this one is different.

What it says about the future: How long until Ginsberg has her own Netflix Marvel series where she’s a street-level superhero, hanging out with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, and punching ninjas in the face?