The Biggest Cinematic Event of 2023 Proves a Brutal Truth About Superhero Movies

After Barbenheimer we need more standalone movies.

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Universal Studios

It’s the Summer of Barbenheimer and we’re all just living in the shadow of its hot pink mushroom cloud. The double whammy of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer offered audiences one of the most exciting cinema double bills since long before the pandemic, and they came out in droves for both. Now, Barbie is the second highest-grossing movie of 2023 so far, and Oppenheimer, a three-hour biographical drama about the Manhattan Project, has grossed more money than The Little Mermaid and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.

The frenzy this double bill inspired, from themed parties and cocktails to the best memes of the season, drove home the genuine desire that film lovers had for something they could truly sink their teeth into. Sure, one is based on a toy and the other is a pretty traditional biopic, but both films represented a kind of change that we needed in the pop culture landscape. One such yearning: more stand-alone movies!

Oppenheimer, alongside Barbie, proved there is a hunger for standalone movies that Hollywood still needs to sate.

Universal Studios

We’ve gotten so used to watching films that aren’t their own thing, but rather a stepping stone toward a larger franchise, that we’ve forgotten the joys of a movie that just ends. There are so many franchises to keep up with, and they all have their own tangled narratives and mythos to remember. Marvel is dozens of films long, plus several TV series, and they’re constantly building toward the next phase of the story, with promises of even bigger drama than what preceded it. The MCU is so vast that it’s begun crumbling under its own weight, with the past year of movies and series receiving middling reviews and evidently conveying the fatigue that has struck creators and viewers alike. Their legacy also means that we’re feeling that sensation everywhere, from the DC Universe’s constant rebooting, to Netflix originals offering a sliver of a story before being canceled three weeks after their release.

Worse yet, we’ve come to expect a tease for a cinematic universe that may or may not come to fruition. Remember the Dark Universe? Or the six-film King Arthur universe Guy Ritchie was supposed to make? Or the Robin Hood series with Taron Egerton that ended after the first installment? There’s a reason people were wondering if films like Oppenheimer would have a post-credits sequence: because we’re so painfully used to having every movie end with a tacked-on promise for more, whether or not it makes sense or there’s any true hunger for it (and the possibility of an Oppenheimer post-credits scene is faintly terrifying: Which creation of a devastating weapon does it hint at next?).

The next Marvel movie requires you to watch three Disney+ series and a movie as homework.

Marvel Studios

Why is it now so rare to get a stand-alone film with a beginning, middle, end, and a guarantee of a complete narrative? Yes, us grumpy critics have been complaining about sequel overload for decades now, but things definitely feel different now. You can watch Die Hard and be perfectly satisfied because it existed as its own thing long before the idea of a sequel entered the filmmakers’ brains. It doesn’t spend half its running time setting up hints for future stories and a bunch of story threads that are never paid off. There’s also a distinct lack of adult-focused mid-budget films in the current theatrical market. While neither Barbie nor Oppenheimer technically qualify for this since both films cost over $100 million, they do fit into that increasingly rare niche by merit of their focus on telling a singular story that isn’t dependent on the viewer having to do a ton of homework before tuning in.

It’s undoubtedly impressive that the likes of Marvel have managed to pull off these multimedia sprawling narratives that have recreated the scope of comic book storytelling for mainstream cinematic audiences. That they’ve kept it going for well over 15 years is a minor miracle given Hollywood’s flighty nature and willingness to ditch any idea the moment it stops being hugely profitable. There’s clearly a place for it, but the desperation to continue the trend and recreate its success has contributed to a wider cultural famine.

So much of the DC movie machine has been stifled by the eagerness to copy Marvel’s formula, regardless of whether or not it fits their ideas. The Flash floundered under the weight of its rubbery cameos, while even a charming stand-alone adventure like Blue Beetle feels the need to set up further franchise appearances. The MCU certainly isn’t immune, as recent disappointments like Secret Invasion can attest to, concepts of immense potential bogged down by having to include over a decade of lore and build toward the next phase.

The chatter over Barbie sequels already shows Hollywood will take the wrong lessons from the movie’s success.

Warner Bros.

So, when I see articles offering ideas for Barbie sequels, I can’t help but feel disappointed. Part of what made Gerwig’s film so special was its densely layered, funny, heart-aching, and complete story. You leave the theater feeling so satisfied because you got what you were promised (and so much more). Oppenheimer is complex, with a vast ensemble and most of its lengthy running time dedicated to conversations about physics and ethics that Nolan refuses to dumb down. Why would you ever walk out of that film wondering about plans for an expanded universe? You just know some studio head floated the idea at some point.

It seems like so little to ask for, yet it feels inevitable that Hollywood will learn all the wrong lessons from the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer. Expect more sequels about toys and fewer emotionally driven tales that give viewers exactly what they want. But our hunger for stand-alone stories remains strong. We don’t have the time nor inclination to watch every film we see evolve into a decade-plus commitment that has a strong chance of being abandoned long before it reaches that much-hyped climax. Let Barbenheimer lead the way and remind Hollywood that it’s okay for things to end.

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