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Why Hollywood shouldn’t celebrate the downfall of superhero movies

Hollywood needs to step up its game

Jason Mamoa in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.
Warner Bros. Pictures

The release of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom capped off the worst year for superhero movies in over two decades. In 2023, only Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse were blockbuster hits. Everything else, from Shazam! Fury of the Gods to The Flash, Blue Beetle, and The Marvels, either managed to lose a ton of money or outright flopped at the box office.

This superhero movie Armageddon has long been predicted by Hollywood luminaries, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and even Jodie Foster, to name just a few. As recounted by the Associated Press in 2015, Spielberg said, “We were around when the Western died, and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture.”

If Spielberg is correct, and the downfall of superhero movies has finally arrived, then this is no time for Hollywood to celebrate. And we’ll tell you why.

The three Spider-Men of Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios

Superhero movies kept theaters alive for the last 20 years

Via Variety, Spielberg told Tom Cruise in 2023 that he “saved Hollywood’s ass and you might have saved theatrical distribution” thanks to the success of Top Gun: Maverick. This completely ignored the fact that Spider-Man: No Way Home brought even more people back into theaters in 2021 with one of the biggest hits that Marvel has ever had.

Since 2008, Marvel Studios has released 33 films (including Spider-Man: No Way Home) that have grossed a combined $29.8 billion worldwide. That’s an unparalleled run that not even Star Wars or James Bond have matched. And that doesn’t account for Warner Bros.’ DC films with Batman and Superman, independent superhero movies, or even Sony’s pre-MCU Spider-Man flicks and current animated features.

Superhero movies were the safest bet in Hollywood during the last two decades. There were some failures along the way, but the theatrical system would have been sunk a long time ago without them.

The cast of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.
Paramount Pictures

Action movies are also in freefall at the box office

In case you hadn’t noticed, superhero movies weren’t the only films that struggled in 2023. Big-budget action flicks like Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Vin Diesel’s Fast X, and even Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny came in far under expectations and ended in the red. If three of Hollywood’s top leading men can’t bring people into theaters and cover the expenses of their films then it suggests that there’s an even bigger problem at hand.

People are tired of seeing the same old thing in theaters. The action movies of 2023 made the same mistake that the superhero movies made: They took the audience for granted. Studios assumed that fans would show up regardless of whether they were happy with the quality of the sequels or spinoffs. No one is predicting that action movies are going the way of the Western. And just because superhero movies are having a bad run doesn’t mean that fans are rushing back to conventional action movies. If anything, it suggests that moviegoers are being more selective about what they see.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbie, Mario, and Taylor Swift were 2023’s superheroes

There were a handful of films this year that achieved superhero movie-like success, including Barbie, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, and even Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Those movies demonstrated that audiences will still come out to theaters for a great film, but Hollywood would be hard-pressed to get a Barbie or a Mario sequel that could replicate that response.

The thing that made superhero movies so valuable is that those films were ready-made for sequels and spinoffs. The major studios may have leaned too hard on superheroes and shared universes, but Marvel made it look easy for a long time.

Looking ahead to 2024, there are only two big comic book movies on the horizon: Deadpool 3 and Joker: Folie à Deux. If those films can’t be hits, then Hollywood may soon regret helping the superhero movies into an early grave because there’s nothing that can easily replace them in the movie ecosystem.

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Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell is a freelance writer for The Manual, Digital Trends, Fandom, Yahoo Entertainment, and more!
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