Christmas crunch: Dec. 21 is a battle royale of big-budget fantasy films.

By James Hibberd
August 13, 2018 at 05:29 PM EDT

Hey, you got plans for Friday, Dec. 21?

You sure do! If Hollywood has anything to say about it, you’re going to the movies. Maybe not on the 21st, but definitely that pre-Christmas weekend. It’s just a question of which movie — or movies — you’re seeing.

Dec. 21 is shaping up to be the most competitive date of the year at the box office with five major film releases announced — six if you fold in a certain huge title coming Wednesday, Dec. 19. Almost all the films are squarely in the same category of “family-friendly but not just for kids,” and five of the six are special-effects-stuffed fantasies.

The date is attractive to studios since it’s the Friday before the holiday (and because Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, many moviegoers will vacation through Wednesday, leaving plenty of time to get to the theater). Plus Dec. 21 is the last tentpole date studios can get a big movie out during the fiscal year to boost their balance sheets.

The first film diving into the Dec. 21 battle royale is Warner Bros.’ Aquaman, which is probably a box office frontrunner. James Wan’s take on the DC universe has the most title recognition of the fivesome and its debut trailer was the most-watched video coming out of Comic-Con, racking up 37 million views:

The second title is Fox’s Alita: Battle Angel. The CG-stuffed Robert Rodriguez-directed James Cameron production of the iconic manga got off to a bumpy start with its first trailer (too much uncanny valley, critics say), then won over many skeptics in its much improved second trailer (below). Cameron-Rodriguez will undoubtedly continue to polish their final cut into the fall. Might the first teaser trailer for Avatar 2 get tacked onto this too? UPDATE: Alita has pushed to February, 2019. 

The third is Paramount’s Bumblebee. Roll your eyes all you want, but the five previous Transformers movies all delivered huge box office numbers (especially once you add in overseas, which accounted for 78 percent of sales for 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight). Not only that, but this is a franchise where the movie that everybody agrees was the worst of the bunch (2009’s Revenge of the Fallen) is also the movie that made the most money. So by that logic, the worse you think Bumblebee looks, the better its chances. Bumblee is a contender (most likely No. 2 or No. 3) even if you swear you won’t see it:

The fourth is Columbia’s Holmes and Watson. This is not to be confused with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s Sherlock Holmes franchise (which has announced a third installment for 2020). Holmes and Watson is a comedy directed by Etan Cohen that reunites Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly (who also teamed in Step Brothers and Talladega Nights). Ironically, the plot involves killer bees. This title also could surprise given it’s the only outright comedy in the group and it’s been a while since we’ve had a proper Will Ferrell fix (we’re not counting Daddy’s Home 2). There’s no trailer yet, just a photo:

Giles Keyte/Columbia

Then there’s Universal’s underdog: The return of the Robert Zemeckis heartwarming holiday movie. This one is Welcome to Marwen and stars Steve Carell as a recovering crime victim who creates a World War II art installation that comes to life. The Forrest Gump and Cast Away director excels at making unique and unlikely hits so you can’t count this out, but right now it feels like these toy soldiers might get crushed.

There’s still enough time for one (or more) of these films to blink and change their release date rather than plunge into the battle royale, so this lineup could change.

But wait, there’s one more. Because Disney (which is having a banner year with $6 billion at the global box office) wants in on this end-of-year all-movies-must-go madness too. The studio recently moved Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt to Dec. 19 — the Wednesday before the other five. So while it doesn’t come out the same day, it will be in the mix during the same weekend (and could blow Aquaman out of the water, especially with its two-day head start):

If all that wasn’t enough, Disney also wants to keep you entertained at home. On Monday, Marvel’s Runaways announced its season 2 premiere date on Hulu. You can probably guess what it is.

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