By Steve Persall | Times Movie Critic
Summertime in movie theaters and it's a jungle in there, air conditioned but hotly contested, as beasts of all species battle to be king.
It's a free-for-all, except for those moviegoers expected to shell out nearly $4 billion on ringside stadium seats between Iron Man 3 and Labor Day.
The beasts come in all imposing shapes, sizes and entertainment values: mutants, monsters, robots, aliens and immortals alike. Good guys and bad news from the past (see The Great Gatsby review, Page 5), present and futures we don't want to see happen.
They're animated eyeballs and fur balls, garden snails and leafy sprites, yellow Minions and blue Smurfs.
Some are even human, though if anyone confuses Vin Diesel with the lumbering cyborgs of Pacific Rim it's an honest mistake.
Our annual Summer Movie Preview is a rundown of the contenders for Hollywood's most coveted prize. No, not the best picture Oscar. That fight comes later, when kids are back in school and grownup movies take over theaters again.
The summer tournament is when the top-grossing movie of the year is decided, and studios will take a huge pile of cash over a gold statuette anytime.
These are the movies most likely to wind up in the top tier of this season's box office chart, the Beasts of the Summer Wild. Release dates are subject to change but not their movies' intentions, to separate you from your money while not minding the expense.
Let's get ready to rumble, starting with…
Star Trek Into Darkness
(May 15 in IMAX, May 16 everywhere)
The buildup: After a thrilling reboot of a stale franchise, Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) hunt down a galaxy-busting bad guy (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The beasts: Fans of Benedict Cumberbatch who don't like it when I poke fun at his name.
The Hangover Part III
The buildup: Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms decide Zach Galifianakis needs psychological help — d'ya think? — and on the way to the hospital the boring one (Justin Bartha) gets kidnapped.
The beasts: Well, they're not called the Wolfpack for nothing.
Fast & Furious 6
The buildup: Deep-rooted emotional feelings emerge after a Nobel laureate … who am I fooling? A lot of cars go really, really fast, and furiously so.
The beasts: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Vin "The Weasel" Diesel in size and box office clout, equally muscular cars in horsepower.
The buildup: Estranged father (Will Smith) and son (Jaden Smith) get marooned in a future Earth long after it becomes inhabitable.
The beast: Not the murderously evolved zoo critters but director M. Night Shayamalan, who destroys moviegoer hopes like Godzilla stomping Tokyo.
Man of Steel
The buildup: Stop me if you've heard this one before: Baby escapes doomed Krypton, grows up super powerful on Earth and saves mankind all the time. At least Henry Cavill is a new Superman.
The beast: Today's finest movie psycho Michael Shannon as General Zod. Kneel before him.
World War Z
The buildup: International plague wakes the dead and, boy, are they hungry. Brad Pitt stars as a United Nations crisis solver called in to do something about it. Because the UN always solves problems.
The beasts: Zombies that multiply like fleas and swarm like fire ants. What else do you need?
The buildup: Returning to the college days of Mike Wasowski (voice of Billy Crystal) and Sulley Sullivan (John Goodman) before they were best friends. Imagine the frat hazing in a college of creatures.
The beasts: You can't swing a stick without hitting one. Even Helen Mirren does the monster mash this time.
White House Down
The buildup: Washington D.C. policeman (Channing Tatum) wants to be a Secret Service agent. His prayer is answered when terrorists take the president (Jamie Foxx) hostage.
The beast: Tatum, heavily armed (i.e. guns and biceps), and the fact that Olympus Has Fallen leaves this affair sounding pretty familiar.
The buildup: Buddy cop comedy with Sandra Bullock playing by the book and Melissa McCarthy ripping it to shreds. Lethal Weapon meets Bridesmaids.
The beast: Without trying to sound like Rex Reed, it's McCarthy, who isn't ashamed to release her inner troll if the laughs are there.
The Lone Ranger
The buildup: Disney expects plenty of hi-yo silver plunked down to see Johnny Depp as Tonto and, um, some other guy (okay, it's Armie Hammer) as his masked kemosabe.
The beast: That dead crow perched on Depp's head.
Despicable Me 2
The buildup: Bad guy gone good Gru (voice of Steve Carell) helps the Anti-Villain League track down the arch criminal Eduardo (Bejamin Bratt, a late replacement for Al Pacino).
The beasts: On the adorable side, Gru's minions named Minions. On the startling side, Pacino, for having "creative differences" with a cartoon.
The buildup: Fantasy visionary Guillermo Del Toro pits aliens vs. Earthlings, as if that's never been done before.
The beasts: Take your pick: Toho Studio-style creatures from outer space, or Transformers-style robots piloted by human soldiers.
Grown Ups 2
The buildup: Developmentally arrested dad (Adam Sandler) moves back to his hometown to be near the buddies he reconnected with in Part 1.
The beasts: Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, Rob Schneider and David Spade for repeaters; Shaquille O'Neal to add sizable humor to the slapstick mix.
The buildup: Ryan Reynolds voices a garden snail that miraculously becomes fast enough to qualify for racing in the Indianapolis 500.
The beast: Tough to consider a snail as a beast but then it's hard thinking of one winning the Indy 500, too.
The buildup: Occasional X-Man and future Hair Club for Men spokesperson "Logan" (Hugh Jackman) travels to Japan in a cultural exchange of butt kicking.
The beasts: Samurai bad guys and of course Jackman, now that he's back to sprouting razor claws, rather than singing operatic Broadway tunes.
The Smurfs 2
The buildup: Oh, just the usual: Smurfette (voice of Katy Perry) gets kidnapped and the blue weenies must rescue her.
The beasts: Evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his bizarro-Smurf gang of Naughties.
300: Rise of an Empire
The buildup: The Persian army led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) that wiped out Gerard Butler's crew in Part 1 continues its world domination tour. Ah, but there's another previously unheralded hunk (Sullivan Stapleton) on the horizon.
The beasts: Sweaty, grunting, manly men swinging swords and not wearing much.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
The buildup: Poseidon's semi-mortal son (Logan Lerman, The Perks of being a Wallflower) seeks the Golden Fleece under the watchful eye of Zeus (Sean Bean).
The beasts: Umm, I'm guessing sea monsters. And hopefully a Pierce Brosnan encore as the half-man, half-horse dude.
The buildup: The further adventures of Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), and not a moment too soon.
The beasts: Jim Carrey as Col. Stars and Stripes, a superhero so demented that he ignores his name and wears camouflage; a super villain (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) with an unprintable 12-letter alter ego.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
The buildup: Ordinary teenaged girl (Lily Collins) discovers her extraordinary bloodlines enable her to see dead people, and they're trying to kill her.
The beasts: Demons, warlocks, vampires, werewolves and ghosts of the Twilight Saga.
JUST FOR FUN
These summer releases won't be beasts but maybe they'll be blasts.
Now You See Me (May 31): Las Vegas illusionists rob banks and give the loot to their audiences. Let's see David Copperfield top that.
The Internship (June 7): Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are Google crashers, taking low-pay jobs alongside computer geeks.
This is the End (June 12): It's a mad, mad, mad, mad end of the world with James Franco, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and more than a dozen funny friends spoofing themselves.
The Bling Ring (June 14): Inspired by the true story of L.A. teenagers who cased celebrity homes on the Internet then burglarized them.
Epic (May 24): Animated eco-adventure with the Brave angle of a young woman (voice of Amanda Seyfried) leading the way.
R.I.P.D. (July 19): Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges play dead lawmen resurrected to solve crimes committed by dead crooks. Like Men in Black with cemeteries rather than spaceships.
Red 2 (July 19): Anthony Hopkins joins Bruce Willis' crew of geriatric black-ops experts, in a sequel to 2010's action comedy hit.
2 Guns (Aug. 2): Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are undercover cops investigating each other for corruption until the mob gives them a common enemy.
We're the Millers (Aug. 9): Marijuana dealer (Jason Sudeikis) needs a fake family to stay in business, so he hires a stripper (Jennifer Aniston!) to pose as his wife.
Planes (Aug. 9): After this and Cars, Disney needs only to make Trains for the John Hughes trifecta of transportation animation.
Steve Persall can be reached at Persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.
Note: This story has been changed to note the following correction: Epic debuts in theaters May 24, and After Earth opens May 31. The Summer Movie Guide in Thursday's Weekend listed incorrect dates for each.