Was 2023 a tipping point for movies? ‘Barbie’ success and Marvel struggles may signal a shift

Dec 27, 2023, 10:52 AM

FILE: Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie attend The European Premiere Of "Barbie" at Cineworld Leiceste...

FILE: Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie attend The European Premiere Of "Barbie" at Cineworld Leicester Square on July 12, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Warner Bros.)

(Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Warner Bros.)

NEW YORK (AP) — Eight years ago, Steven Spielberg predicted that the superhero movie would one day go “the way of the Western.”

Spielberg’s comments caused a widespread stir at the time. “Avengers: The Age of Ultron” was then one of the year’s biggest movies. The following year would bring “Captain America: Civil War,” “Deadpool” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The superhero movie was in high gear, and showing no signs of slowing down.

But Spielberg’s point was that nothing is forever in the movie business. These cycles, Spielberg said, “have a finite time in popular culture.” And the maker of “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws” might know a thing or two about the ebbs and flows of pop-culture taste.

As 2023 draws to a close, no one is sounding the death knell of the superhero movie. The Walt Disney Co.’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” made $845.6 million worldwide and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” ($691 million) was one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Marvel is still mightier than any other brand in the business.

But more than ever before, there are chinks in the armor of the superhero movie. Its dominance in popular culture is no longer quite so assured. A cycle may be turning, and a new one dawning.

For the first time in more than two decades, the top three movies at the box office didn’t include one sequel or remake: “Barbie,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Oppenheimer.” The last time that happened was 2001, when “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.” topped the box office.

No, it’s not exactly a lineup of originality like, say, 1973, when “The Exorcist, “The Sting” and “American Graffiti” led all movies in ticket sales. “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros.,” based on some of the most familiar brands in the world, will generate spinoffs and sequels of their own.

But it’s hard not to sense a shift in moviegoing, one that might have reverberations for years to come for Hollywood.

“There’s an inflection point in 2023,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore. “ Barbenheimer is just one part of that story. Audiences, they want to be challenged. I think the tried and true is not necessarily working.”

Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” from Warner Bros., was the year’s runaway hit, with more than $1.4 billion in ticket sales worldwide. It was a blockbuster like none seen before: an anarchic comedy that set a string of records for a movie directed by a woman.

Nearly as unprecedented was the success of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour drama that nearly grossed $1 billion. As different as it and “Barbie” were, they were each original feats of cinema and personal statements by its directors.

At the same time, the Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel, a hit-making machine like none other in movie history, faltered like never before. “The Marvels” marked a new low for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, collecting $200 million globally. DC Studios, in the midst of a revamp, saw disappointing results for “The Flash” and “Blue Beetle” before watching “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” sink to a $28.1 million debut.

Both Marvel and DC have already made moves to right their ships. Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive, has called turning around Marvel his top priority. He said the superhero studio has suffered greatly from too many films and series leading to “diluted quality.” The James Gunn, Peter Safran-led DC, meanwhile, won’t officially launch until 2025 with “Superman Legacy.”

In the meantime, something else will have to fill the void. That was a theme in 2023, too, when the writers and actors strikes marred release plans and forced the delay of several films including Warner’s “Dune: Part Two,” Sony’s next “Ghostbusters” movie and MGM’s “Challengers.”

Those disruptions will continue in 2024. Analysts aren’t expecting a banner year for Hollywood in part because films like the next “Mission: Impossible” film and the “Spider-Verse” sequel, both delayed by the strikes, won’t make their original dates.

Overall ticket sales in U.S. and Canadian theaters for 2023 are expected to reach about $9 billion, according to Comscore, an improvement of about 20% from 2022. The industry is still trying to regain its pre-pandemic footing, when ticket sales regularly surpassed $11 billion. Output of wide-releases in 2023 (88) still trailed those in 2019 (108) by 18.5%.

Hollywood is still coaxing moviegoers back to theaters — something “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer” and “Mario” went a long way to helping.

“It reinforced something that we’ve known for 100 years in the business: People like going to the shared experience out of the home,” says Jeffrey Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros. “They love being entertained. Movies are a good financial proposition and can bring in a mass audience.”

“It probably started with ‘Mario’ last April,” adds Goldstein. “I think that showed audiences again that theaters are a fun place to be to. And it showed studios and content creators: Up your game.”

If 2023 is any guide, hits will come from increasingly unpredictable places.

That was the case with “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” a film released just two months after Swift’s recorded concerts in a first-of-its-kind distribution deal with AMC Theatres. It grossed $250 million worldwide, and was followed by the similarly released “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” another No. 1 debut.

More surprising was “Sound of Freedom,” a $15 million film from the independent Angel Studios, which matched Swift with $250 million worldwide. It was released with a unique “pay it forward” program that allowed people to donate tickets.

Going into 2023, no one was betting “Sound of Freedom” would outgross “The Marvels” or that “Five Nights at Freddy’s” would have a bigger opening weekend than “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

“There are going to be examples of big-budget, traditional blockbusters that do well,” says Dergarabedian. “But for every one of those, there have been two that failed. An audience that’s finding a lot of interesting material on streaming is becoming more open to films like ‘Godzilla Minus One,’ Indian cinemaJapanese anime. There’s a shift in audience taste and studios need to get a handle on this.”

That poses as much of a challenge as an opportunity to studios. If more-of-the-same no longer has quite the same appeal for moviegoers, an industry that for years has depended on sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes to make up the bulk of its profits may require new creativity.

The Western didn’t vanish all at once. After two decades of ubiquity, it began going out of style in the 1960s. And the Western, of course, continues to be rich territory for filmmakers. This year, 81-year-old Martin Scorsese made his first Western in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the three-hour-plus $200 million epic from Apple Studios.

The superhero movie, likewise, won’t ever die. But its heyday might have reached its endgame.

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Was 2023 a tipping point for movies? ‘Barbie’ success and Marvel struggles may signal a shift