The Biggest Movie of 2023 Proves Marvel is Out of Excuses
The return of summer cinema proves that the MCU's grace period is officially over.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a content machine. From the first experimental forays like Iron Man to the first big team-up with The Avengers, the MCU quickly cemented itself as a hit factory, making movie after movie and building upon itself to only get bigger.
The apex of this was Avengers: Endgame, the shocking conclusion to The Infinity Saga which saw the Avengers’ biggest fight yet — and one of the greatest opening weekends ever. But less than a year later, the world shut down, and Marvel never seemed to recover. In 2023, that’s still the reason many blame for “superhero fatigue” ... but that doesn’t quite hold water in 2023.
July 2023 contained “Barbenheimer” — the massive box office one-two punch of Barbie and Oppenheimer, two non-sequel movies that established themselves as cultural events. Barbie even crossed a billion dollars, which is par for the course for a big IP movie, but not in the year 2023.
Ever since 2019, the MCU had one reason or another for underperforming films. First, it was post-Endgame recovery: after the Blip, there was a lot of grief and trauma to process and any superhero antics kind of rang hollow. Then, in 2020, Marvel became one of the main victims of the pandemic’s effect on movie studios, with movies like Black Widow and Eternals shuffled — both of which underperformed.
Ever since then, Marvel has waited for the big breakout movie that will usher it into a new age. Most of the most popular movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: No Way Home banked on the popularity of their predecessors, but even that wasn’t enough for fellow threequel Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
With the success of Barbie, a fellow “IP movie,” Marvel is officially out of excuses for its movie releases. Cinema is apparently “back,” and Marvel projects have now completely moved on from the fallout of Endgame to the point where it doesn’t even come up anymore, so why are the movies still falling flat?
It’s possible that the era of Marvel dominance is officially over, and the franchise will need to innovate once again to keep its content fresh and new. It’s not that superhero movies are over, it’s just that the Marvel movies we’ve seen for more than a decade now will need to keep growing with the times. Perhaps Barbie can offer a lesson to Marvel in making a fresh, original story out of a cynical bid to sell toys. Barbie had an auteur like Greta Gerwig molding the movie into her distinct vision (while maintaining her integrity against a sequel), while Marvel movies have become so much a part of the machine that even its greatest recent creative achievements are forgotten after a few months. Maybe Barbie will be a turning point in the kind of movies that Hollywood, and by extent Marvel, could aim to make.
All that being said, if a movie based on a doll can make a billion dollars, a movie based on a superhero can do the same: it just needs a fresh approach.