Superheroes Are Finally Losing Their Grasp on Moviegoers – and That’s Good for the Box Office

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For the first time in years, DC and Marvel superhero movies failed to dominate the annual theatrical marketplace in 2022 as comic book flicks were overshadowed by big-budget franchises like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jurassic World Dominion,” which rose to the top of the box office heap instead.

With $1.5 billion for “Avatar” and $1.49 billion for “Top Gun,” these sequels finally broke the chokehold that superheroes have held on the global box office since 2017, the last time that blockbuster movies unrelated to DC Studios or Marvel led the movie pipeline.

Meanwhile, 2023 brings a slew of big franchise titles, including “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Fast X” and “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” which rank among the most anticipated despite featuring not a single caped crusader.

Are audiences finally tired of superhero stories? Some Hollywood insiders say Yes. “You’re used to maybe one or two Marvel movies a year alongside one DC movie,” said a top movie studio executive who declined to be named. “Now you’re going to see so many per year that they are losing some of their luster, especially when factoring streaming shows [like ‘The Peacemaker’ and ‘Moon Knight'”].

Noting the shift in box office results, Box Office Pro analyst Shawn Robbins observed: “The butter is being more evenly spread out on the bread.”

transformers rise of beasts
transformers rise of beasts

Comic book films flew high, but other franchise titles flew higher

Last year’s superhero films earned around $4.06 billion or around 15.6% of the global total, according to Box Office Mojo. Comparatively, such films earned $5 billion in 2017 while only making up 12.5% of the $40 billion global total. In 2018, superhero films earned $7.3 billion, and jumped up to comprising 18% of the $41 billion global box office.

President of IMAX Entertainment Megan Colligan said that “superhero movies will likely continue to be the bedrock, given their passionate global fan bases and sheer volume.”

The likes of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” are expected to pull their weight in 2023, even if — as Robbins noted — “None of them scream automatic No. 1 movie of the year.”

Last year may have been the transition analysts were expecting in 2020 prior to the pandemic

The superhero fall-off in 2022 was expected to take place in 2020. At the time, few experts expected a year like 2019 when Disney ruled with $12 billion out of a $41 billion global annual total thanks to A-level Marvel installments, “Star Wars,” sequels, animated follow-ups and Katzenberg-era live-action remakes.

“Many big movies were moved out of 2019,” noted Robbins, “and then the likes of ‘No Time to Die,’ ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ ‘Mulan’ and ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ ran smack-dab into a global pandemic.” The year 2020 began with blow-out success for the R-rated, non-fantastical “Bad Boys for Life” and a movie based on the “Sonic the Hedgehog” video game.

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Hollywood has mostly given up on non-Marvel, non-DC comic book superhero adaptations

Hollywood is realizing that comic book films not related to Marvel or DC are no safer than non-comic book franchise films. The likes of Vin Diesel’s “Bloodshot” or Daniel Craig’s “Cowboys and Aliens” bear that out. Ditto the streaming era, where Amazon’s “The Boys” is a smash but Netflix’s “Jupiter’s Legacy” was a costly single-season flop. Hollywood has no choice but to seek out other avenues — like video games — for theatrical franchise filmmaking.

Former entertainment journalist and current television showrunner (“Luke Cage,” “Ray Donovan”) Cheo Hodari Coker noted that Hollywood is finally learning some of the right lessons from MCU’s pop culture dominance.

“The Avengers” broke out and everyone tried making interconnected universes, but Marvel’s success was unique unto itself, and Hollywood finally figured that out,” he told TheWrap. Coker further explained that Marvel chief Kevin Feige’s universe was successful partially because “it wasn’t afraid to embrace the specificity, even the weirdness, of a given comic book property,” and that the industry is applying that notion to other franchises. If the movie works, Coker argued, audiences don’t need to be spoon-fed and Hollywood need not sand off the edges or specific quirks of a given property.

Indeed, last year’s biggest franchise titles were “can’t get this anywhere else” spectacles while offering big-screen thrills (Pandora, dinosaurs, fighter pilot action, etc.) not typically associated with comic book actioners.

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Caped crusaders aren’t the only marquee characters

As marquee characters supplanted movie stars (Deadpool > Ryan Reynolds), DC/Marvel movies enjoyed a big advantage due to their branded heroes and villains. Interconnectivity was never the main appeal, nor were credit cookies, Easter Eggs, fan theories and other components that tend to dominate online discourse.

Audiences embraced Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hardy’s Venom. But this year’s franchise titles feature a slew of marquee characters like Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones or Keanu Reeves’ John Wick who are likely to hold their own commercially alongside Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman or Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man.

“Many of these characters are essentially non-superpowered superheroes,” Coker pointed out. He argued that many of these franchises, like “John Wick” or “Mission: Impossible,” are engaged in at least some stereotypically comic book storytelling.

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Will Marvel transition to being a more exclusionary franchise?

Robbins wondered if, with “Avengers: Endgame” providing a jumping-off point for some audiences, Marvel has become/may become closer to a “for fans only” franchise — with a huge commercial ceiling — akin to “The Twilight Saga,” the later “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” sequels.

“Does it become like those other YA franchises,” asked Robbins, “or could it pull a ‘Star Wars’ and still have major historic peaks with the most ‘event’ of its event-level films [like “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty]? Time, and Phase 5, should give us more insight on that.”

In this scenario, Marvel and DC films will continue to perform objectively well (“People would be jumping for joy with these kind of grosses for almost any other franchise film,” argued Coker) but they will play slightly less to general audiences as those moviegoers choose other franchise films for their casual theatrical outings

The status quo could return to a pre-2018 level whereby Marvel/DC films soar high but other franchise titles soar higher right alongside them. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part II” grossed $830 million worldwide playing specifically to franchise’s respective fans in late 2012 while the rest of the world flocked to “Skyfall” ($1.1 billion), “Lincoln” ($276 million) and “Life of Pi” ($610 million).

What we may see in 2023 is not the downfall of the comic book superhero movie at the box office, but a leveling of the playing field where there’s room for more than one kind of tentpole to thrive. That’s a world where Disney can succeed with “The Marvels” and “The Little Mermaid,” where Warner Bros. Discovery can find fortune and glory with “The Flash” and “Barbie.”

“What’s most important is a diversity of choice at the box office,” stated Colligan. “Audiences want choice and will always respond to a broad offering of well-made, epically told stories. That’s the recipe for a healthy film business.”

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