Why 2023 was a tough year for superhero movies, and what to look forward to in 2024

DC and Marvel have had a string of box office struggles over the course of the year

Paul Rudd as Ant-Man and Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror in Marvel's Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Photo: Disney
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In 1985, Tina Turner sang that “we don’t need another hero” on the soundtrack to the third instalment of cult dystopian sci-fi Mad Max. Four decades on, cinema audiences may be coming around to her point of view.

There’s been much talk of “superhero fatigue” over the course of 2023 as successive projects from both major players in the genre, Marvel and DC, limped from one unimpressive box office haul to another.

In the Disney-owned Marvel camp in March, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania banked, in Marvel terms, a mere $476.1 million globally. While the sum may read as impressive, with a $200 million production budget, and marketing budgets often equalling production costs for flagpole releases, it would have been lucky to scrape into profit.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is harder to quantify. It’s animated and non-MCU-canon – part of the affiliated Sony Spider-Man Universe. Its $683 million June release is no small change, but it’s only around a third of the near-$2 billion banked in December 2021 by Spider-Man: No Way Home, the last live-action Spider-Man outing.

It’s not been an entirely disastrous year for Marvel. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, a relatively niche Marvel property, achieved a solid $845 million haul in May.

But then we come to last month’s opening for The Marvels. Its $46 million domestic launch weekend was the worst in the history of the MCU and it has since gone on to take $199 million globally. The direction of travel seems indisputable.

Things have been no better over at arch-rival DC. The Flash pulled in $270.6 million worldwide in June, but with a production budget of around $220 million the film is tipped to be one of the biggest box office flops of all time, losing parent company Warner Bros around $200 million. August’s Blue Beetle made just $129 million globally, while in March Shazam! Fury of the Gods made $133.8 million.

What has happened to all the heroes?

There was a time, in the 2010s, when the genre appeared to be a money-printing machine for studios.

Avengers: Endgame is the most obvious example, displacing Avatar as the highest-grossing film to date, with a $2.8 billion haul in 2019. But it’s no isolated example. Revenue tracker Box Office Mojo’s all-time list of top-grossing films features no fewer than four MCU entries in the top 10.

Even less well-known Marvel characters such as Captain Marvel and Iron Man – who was very much a fringe member of the team before his cinematic renaissance – have all surpassed $1 billion at the box office.

At DC, historically the runner up in the Marvel vs DC big-screen battle, Aquaman, Joker and the last two films in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy also find themselves in the billion-dollar-club.

It’s a club both studios would have dearly loved to join in 2023, a year when the undisputed movie event of the year was the summer box office showdown between a three-hour historical epic about the invention of the atom bomb and a surreal feminist comedy from an acclaimed indie director about a doll launched in the 1950s. It’s hard to think of two films further removed from the superhero genre.

The Hollywood strikes have played their part in hampering both release schedules and publicity over the course of the year, but both Barbie and Oppenheimer had their publicity trails cut short by the industrial action and still banked impressively – just above and just below $1 billion respectively.

The year’s other big earner, The Super Mario Bros Movie, suggests we might look to Hamleys rather than comic books for the next big hit.

Where did it all go wrong for superheroes?

Saturation is likely to have played a part in the downfall of superheroes. Disney in particular has tended to see Marvel as a means of driving subscribers to streaming service Disney+ since global roll-out began in 2020.

For the first couple of years, marked by lockdowns and cinema restrictions, the service made little impact on box office sales, and viewers were probably just pleased to have new content while stuck indoors.

Enter 2023, however, with lockdown a fading memory. Marvel has launched no less than four series on Disney+, with a fifth, What If…?, still to come on December 22. Four movies have also dropped in cinemas.

While that is significantly fewer releases than initially planned, with Mahershala Ali’s forthcoming Blade reboot perhaps the highest profile postponement. The delay could be a sign that Disney itself has spotted the effects of oversupply? With almost one new Marvel project a month for fans to take in, and some of the TV shows requiring a 10-hour-plus viewing commitment, it's certainly a lot to expect of fans.

DC parent Warner Bros Discovery is a little behind Disney on the streaming front. Its Max service, despite various forerunners, launched in the US in May following the merger of the two entertainment giants, and global roll-out is still continuing.

There’s plenty of new DC content forthcoming both in cinemas and on Max, including the much-anticipated The Penguin series, but Warner Bros has also been showing a significant amount of its DC content on Amazon Prime, including past DC Extended Universe movies.

This could partly be a reaction to observing its rival's saturation and probably also an attempt to clear the slate ahead of the DC chief executive James Gunn’s reboot of the entire universe from next year.

There’s been a notable drive by both Marvel and DC to focus on less well-known characters in 2023 too. Characters like The Marvels, Ant-Man, Shazam and Blue Beetle all sit towards the low-profile end of their respective publishers’ comic book output, which may not have helped sell tickets.

Does 2024 look set to be better?

We won’t have to wait long to find out if the return of some much-loved characters can heal the apparent malaise afflicting the genre. DC is first out of the blocks, with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom landing in cinemas this week. The first Aquaman film is the highest grossing DC movie to date.

A sequel to the Oscar-winning Joker is also due in October next year, giving DC high-profile starting points for a potential revival in box office fortunes.

Marvel’s next 12 months on the big screen are more muted, partly due to the aforementioned postponements and partly because the Avengers' planned Kang-dominated multiverse is currently in limbo following the firing of actor Jonathan Majors, who plays the supervillain Kang. On Monday, Majors was convicted of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Grace Jabbari, and found guilty of one misdemeanour assault charge and one harassment violation.

The only MCU movie scheduled next year is Deadpool 3 – the first Deadpool within the official MCU, following Disney’s 2019 takeover of 20th Century Fox. There’s a lot riding on the film’s planned July release, but if Ryan Reynolds can’t save your franchise, it may be past saving anyway.

Updated: December 19, 2023, 7:14 AM