Good news, Martin Scorsese. The era of Hollywood being dominated by superhero movies may be coming to an end.
For more than a decade, comic book films have been ubiquitous and fairly reliable moneymakers, but the genre has suffered a series of shocking failures in 2023 that raise questions about its future. Can superhero films regain the cultural relevance they once had, or does this year suggest there is no going back?
An Avengers-level threat
It was just over a month into 2023 when audiences saw their first tentpole superhero movie — or, more accurately, didn't see it.
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"Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" arrived in February and was billed as a crucial chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the movie was a financial disappointment. Despite being advertised as the most must-see "Ant-Man" film yet, it actually grossed less than the previous two, which were largely standalone, low-stakes adventures. This spelled trouble for Marvel's long-term game plan, as "Quantumania" introduced a storyline meant to span multiple films and shows and culminate in an "Avengers" crossover. Audiences, though, just didn't seem interested.
Weeks later, DC's "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" also flopped. The original movie made $140 million domestically in 2019, but the sequel failed to even clear $60 million.
As the year continued, the superhero movie landscape remained mostly bleak. In June, DC's "The Flash" became a historic box office bomb despite being stuffed with the kind of franchise fan service that produced a hit in 2021's "Spider-Man: No Way Home." "Blue Beetle" also disappointed in August, marking DC's third flop of the year — and later this month, "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" looks poised to become a fourth.
For Marvel, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" offered a bright spot in May, as it grossed a strong $845 million worldwide. Still, despite being the finale of a beloved trilogy, it didn't outperform its predecessor, let alone hit $1 billion like Disney used to do regularly. By November, "The Marvels" was a massive failure, earning the worst opening weekend in MCU history. "Captain Marvel" raked in $1.1 billion in 2019, but the sequel is struggling to crawl past $200 million. Given the film was a culmination of several Marvel TV shows and movies, audiences' indifference signaled another embarrassing repudiation of the MCU's current era.
Out with the old, in with the new
Some have argued these failures can be blamed entirely on the movies themselves not being up to snuff. After all, most of this year's superhero flops earned lukewarm reviews, and Marvel was coming off poorly received films like "Eternals" and "Thor: Love and Thunder" that likely tainted the brand.
But it could also be that audiences are simply burnt out from being flooded with endless superhero content — particularly after Marvel's Disney+ shows were added to the pool in early 2021, making it feel like homework to stay up to date with the franchise. This fall, the second season of "Loki" received positive reviews but still reportedly lost viewers from season 1, suggesting low quality isn't solely to blame. For Marvel, 2019's "Avengers: Endgame" provided such a satisfying finale that it may have given audiences a convenient off-ramp to bail as soon as they sensed that the subsequent films weren't going to be as strong.
The rise of streaming and a shortened window between a film's theatrical release and at-home availability has also made moviegoers pickier about what they watch on the big screen. So a film must now be seen as an event to get them to turn out. For a while, it was almost a given that any new superhero movie, and especially any new MCU movie, was an event. 2023 suggested this is no longer the case, whether the culprit is oversaturation or declining quality.
The success of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" also suggested moviegoers are hungry for films that are unlike anything they've seen before. In that environment, it may be more challenging for superhero movies to qualify unless reviews are glowing or there's a particularly strong hook — a hook like, for example, the eye-popping animation of the critically beloved "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse," which shattered expectations over the summer. A film like that, though, doesn't come around often.
Superhero movies' diminished cultural relevance leaves room for another entity to take their place, and video game adaptations are a prime candidate. "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," "Five Nights at Freddy's" and HBO's "The Last of Us" were all hits this year, and Nintendo is already working on a "Legend of Zelda" movie. 2023 may have ushered in an era where Hollywood executives hunt for new franchises not in the inventory of comic book stores, but in the aisles of GameStop.
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