It’s not a secret that 21st-century film has been dominated by sequels and superhero adaptations. Every year since 2004, other than Avatar in 2009, an IP blockbuster was no. 1 at the domestic box office. But something shifted by the end of 2022: The enthusiasm surrounding the superhero genre finally started to wane after a lukewarm response to big-ticket Marvel and DC installments like Black Adam and Thor: Love and Thunder.
Then, in 2023, cinephiles got a little treat: a double billing of two big-budget, non-sequel, non-superhero features made by auteurs who, by all accounts, had ample creative freedom over their projects. Barbie, while still technically based on IP—though presented with a unique take on the subject matter—was the highest-grossing film of the year, with Oppenheimer joining it in the top five. What made it all the more satisfying for some viewers was the schadenfreude in watching Marvel Studios and the superhero genre at large have one of its worst years in recent memory, with disappointments both critically and commercially in titles like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Marvels, and The Flash.
Barbenheimer represented film success in ways both novel and old-fashioned: On the one hand, a billion-dollar women-led comedy about existentialism, and on the other, a $900 million dialogue-heavy historical biopic. Before the Barbenheimer meme became a viral phenomenon, these were films difficult to imagine being this successful—even for someone like Christopher Nolan, with his box office pedigree. The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee described Oppenheimer’s ticket sales as “a staggering amount for something of that ilk, a talky, three-hour awards movie treated by audiences like a superhero epic.” Maria Teresa Hart, author of the nonfiction fashion doll history book Doll, told Vox earlier this year that “Barbie is one of those things where the more feminine something is, the more discredited it can be. Barbie feels like the underdog.”
It’s easy to look at the success of Barbenheimer and feel inclined to declare that “cinema is back” (coincidentally, just one year after Top Gun: Maverick “saved” cinema). After largely unrivaled IP dominance for a solid 15 years, films made by highly regarded, Academy Award–nominated directors somehow feel like long shots in today’s theatrical landscape. Now, make no mistake: Christopher Nolan has been a box office lock since at least 2008’s The Dark Knight, and Barbie was mining one of the most recognizable pieces of intellectual property yet to be adapted for the screen in live action. They were both made with at least $100 million budgets and star-studded ensemble casts and were released in the middle of summer. Their success was not completely an accident or a surprise. Yet, as Inverse’s Kayleigh Donaldson wrote, Barbie and Oppenheimer “fit into an increasingly rare niche” by telling a contained story separate from a sprawling cinematic universe. Because of this, it felt like a victory for a certain type of film fan to watch comparatively different types of blockbusters in Barbenheimer succeed while a behemoth like Marvel faltered, even if they were all coming from powerful places within the film industry.
Widen the scope, and this same sentiment could be applied to other star filmmakers who saw varying degrees of success this year: David Fincher, Ridley Scott, and Martin Scorsese. In Fincher’s case, his kinetic hit man thriller The Killer received a limited theatrical run before getting unceremoniously dumped on Netflix, reaffirming the odd dark horse status of some of Hollywood’s best working directors. Still, The Killer racked up tens of millions of viewing hours according to Netflix and spent weeks at the helm of the platform’s Top 10 list, demonstrating a demand for cerebral filmmaking on even the most mainstream of streaming services. Scott’s big-budget Napoleon was similarly propped up with “Isn’t it great this movie was actually made?” hype despite centering on one of the most famous historical figures of all time. Like Fincher’s film, Scott’s Napoleon gives off an air of a rank outsider from a bygone era that was lucky to be produced in the year 2023. And as with Fincher, audiences have mostly rewarded Scott’s efforts—even if it’s still about $30 million short of breaking even on its substantial budget, it’s made a respectable $170 million globally, and the film should drive subscribers to Apple TV+ when it debuts there at a later date.
Scorsese, always a lightning rod in exhausting film debates due to his comments on Marvel films, has weirdly gotten a reputation as an artsy, eat-your-vegetables type of filmmaker despite being one of the most recognizable directors in America. Killers of the Flower Moon is a three-and-a-half-hour chronicle of wretched Native American genocide, but it’s not an inaccessible film—it’s compellingly helmed by two bona fide movie stars on a $200 million budget. A recent viral snippet from a podcast compared Scorsese’s work to “going to the DMV” because his films are long and “tedious.” The suggestion that Scorsese, a well-established mainstream filmmaker, puts out movies that wouldn’t classify as a typical hit isn’t an isolated one; there’s an implication that if you’re not making an IP project, you’re making something subversive. Superhero movies have gotten so big that nearly every other production looks small in comparison. Films that would’ve been considered overdogs in most periods of movie history have gradually become underdogs—films we ostensibly feel the need to root for and make space for in the age of IP.
Could indisputably successful films like Barbie and Oppenheimer make a dent in the Marvel machine, or even portend a sea change in a film industry that’s grown reliant on a shrinking range of movies? Boxoffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins told CNN in July that “it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to duplicate the Barbenheimer craze.” But that doesn’t mean studios won’t try—or even that they aren’t trying already.
While Nolan pretty much has a blank check in perpetuity, especially after switching over from Warner Bros. to Universal, there’s already a doll hunt for the next Barbie. The New Yorker reported in July that Mattel has 45 films in various stages of development, including projects based on characters like He-Man and Polly Pocket. Even though a wave of toy adaptations already occurred in the late 2000s and early 2010s, which saw diminishing returns for movies like G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Battleship, the success of Barbie has execs deducing that it’s time to reopen the toy box. This doesn’t even include the next genre of IP that feels like it’s about to completely take over Hollywood: video game adaptations. The billion-dollar Super Mario Bros. Movie finished second to Barbie at the domestic box office this year and has already led Nintendo to announce a Legend of Zelda live action film. In film and television, 2023 also saw successful adaptations of Five Nights at Freddy’s, The Last of Us, Gran Turismo, and Twisted Metal, and a Borderlands film is slated for 2024 along with a second Sonic the Hedgehog sequel.
If the lesson you were hoping studios would take away from Barbenheimer was that audiences are sick of superheroes, then maybe you’re satisfied. For the first time, it feels like there’s an end in sight for Marvel’s reign, with one of its major upcoming releases, Blade, stuck in development hell, on top of numerous other crises the studio dealt with this year, as reported by Variety. But if you were optimistic that Hollywood would shift its focus away from franchise filmmaking and adapting children’s IP altogether, you’d be wrong. “Lena Dunham’s Polly Pocket” doesn’t exactly conjure up the feeling that we’re about to enter another Golden Age of Hollywood, and it doesn’t inspire hope that it doesn’t seem to have dawned on studio execs that the success of Barbie can be simply explained by Greta Gerwig having the space and money to execute her vision rather than just by putting a famous doll on a movie screen. (Although maybe this is what Gerwig wanted—her next two films will be based on another children’s IP, The Chronicles of Narnia, and she is reportedly looking to become “a big studio director.”)
The Barbenheimer phenomenon won’t significantly move the needle in terms of what kinds of films will get made in the future because, ultimately, those films just did what they were supposed to do. It was a fun respite from superhero films, and it was genuinely touching to see people so excited for an old-school double feature, but truthfully, they weren’t particularly risky films. When you put money and stars into a carefully crafted film and support it with a viral advertising campaign, you’ve got a hit on your hands. But perhaps the problem is that too many viewers continue to conform to the studios’ pursuit of box office profits. Barbie, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, The Killer, and even Napoleon to a degree were successful because they were captivating, meticulous, and original films. As filmgoers we should advocate for those artists to get their art financed and distributed on the basis of creating great art, without playing the box office game. Still, we don’t need to point to box office success as proof that there’s value in a diverse array of films—the artistic value is already there.