2023 Was the Year the Superhero-Movie Phenomenon Ended

Movies

The Movie Club, Entry 4.

Various Marvel superhero characters over a background of a film strip.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Marvel, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, and Getty Images Plus.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—for 2023, Bilge Ebiri, Esther Zuckerman, and Mark Harris—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Dear fellow movie brains,

I’m so delighted to be joining you, and happy that we got to the elephant in the room—a big pink elephant singing an up-tempo pop song while ignoring the mushroom cloud behind it—in Round 1. As Stanley Kowalski said in A Streetcar Named Desire—I’ll leave out the iffy context in which he said it, at least until we get to May December—we’ve had this date from the beginning. Or at least since midsummer, when it became clear that Barbenheimer was going to be a singular, year-defining movie event. I won’t delay in saying that I am firmly Team Both. Like you, Dana, I spent that opening weekend finally, emotionally, giving in to the belief that yes, movies are back, maybe! Like you, Bilge, I was wowed by Oppenheimer—its headlong pace, the confidence of its artistry, and the ferocious hubris of its conviction that uncompromised, challenging popular art could be made out of that cursed moment of our history. And like you, Esther, I was unexpectedly moved by Barbie; mainly, though, I was dazzled by the playful tension between its candy-coated surface and its vibrant, interrogatory, nonstop cultural and political imagination.

The more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts collision of these two movies also made me think, for the first time in a while, about what it is that we—OK, I—want from high-end, high-cost Hollywood studio moviemaking. Officially, it’s Oppenheimer, right? One of the honorable remaining functions of the perilously shrinking world of studios (there are only five left) is to provide the support, the infrastructure, the money for a master filmmaker like Christopher Nolan to pursue large-scale visionary work that requires a huge canvas. (Apple, which is rich enough to buy every studio—btw, Apple, please don’t do that—provided the same service for Martin Scorsese with the magisterial Killers of the Flower Moon.)

Whereas Barbie, by contrast, was, to put it politely, conceived in the deepest bowels of hell as a cynical brand extension and reinvigoration intended to sell toys. Does that matter? Should it matter? Well, yeah, it’s something to be aware of, but the film itself was a useful reminder that if you’re going to write about Hollywood movies, you probably shouldn’t get too precious about assessing purity of intention. Everything, as Stephen Sondheim wrote, depends on execution. No studio movie arrives via immaculate conception; they are all designed to sell something, whether toys or tickets, and a large part of the centurylong history of the industry is a narrative of brilliant artists and entertainers doing their best to please, to thwart, or to outwit the hard-nosed businessmen who write the checks and who more often behave like Borgias than like Medicis. What defines Barbie is the intelligence and the delight that Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach, and Margot Robbie bring to it. At least for me. (While I’m on the subject of “conceived in evil but executed with joy” movies, I haven’t seen D&D, but I will agree with Esther’s good word for Wonka, a wholly unnecessary greed-driven prequel and an actual full-on musical replete with charm and delight, of which I enjoyed every minute. I would happily take my nonexistent kids!)

The other thing Barbenheimer made me think about this year is, to reduce it to one word, stakes. I’ll explain, but before I do, it might be useful to share my Top 10:

Anatomy of a Fall
Barbie
The Holdovers
Killers of the Flower Moon
May December
Oppenheimer
Perfect Days
Poor Things
You Hurt My Feelings
The Zone of Interest

My next nine (I’m leaving at least one slot open for the many movies on your lists that I still have to see): All of Us Strangers, American Fiction, Nyad, Passages, Past Lives, Saltburn, Showing Up, A Thousand and One, Tótem

Back to stakes. Barbie and Oppenheimer both cleared a hurdle that, for me, is essential—while I was watching, I very much wanted to see how everything turned out. This despite the fact that Oppenheimer’s outcome is already one of the most debated events of the 20th century and that Barbie and Ken are, frankly, plastic dolls. It didn’t matter; I wanted to know on what precipice Nolan would leave his version of J. Robert Oppenheimer and thus round out his dialectical fission/fusion vision, and I wanted to know just as badly what Gerwig had decided would constitute a win for her Barbie (and for her Ken). Make me care. That’s not too much to ask, and yet, it’s everything.

It also connects to the year’s other big box-office story, the dark mirror of Barbenheimer: 2023 did not mark the end of superhero movies, but it absolutely marked the end of the superhero-movie phenomenon. At Warner Bros., three films—Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and Blue Beetle—performed exactly as poorly as you might have predicted they would, given that they were preceded by a hugely publicized announcement from the studio that an epic five-movie-and-five-TV-series DC relaunch was coming in 2025, so, you know, meanwhile, here’s the last of the stuff that doesn’t really count. The move was an overt attempt to ape the success of Disney/Marvel, but an attempt that was so late in coming that by the time it did, Disney/Marvel was falling apart: Its lineup ranged from disappointing (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) to big-but-won’t-reinvigorate-anything (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) to holy-crap-they’re-actually-in-trouble (The Marvels), by which point restored Disney emperor Bob Iger was taking a break from alienating every union in Hollywood to announce that the studio would soon be initiating a new Marvel policy that boils down to “We’re gonna make less stuff and maybe then you’ll want it more.”

Uh, sure, maybe. We’ll see. What I really wanted from these movies was stakes, and stakes were—as overstuffed as the films tend to be—one thing that most of them completely lacked. Even their playfulness, their irony, and their self-referentiality has started to feel laboratory-tested. When I saw reviews for The Marvels, I was surprised by how many of them felt like episode recaps. That’s not an indictment of critics at all; if anything, it’s proof that they understood exactly what was being put in front of them: Chapter 33, maybe, of a serial, the primary purpose of which was to set up Chapters 34 through 38 and to send confused moviegoers back to Chapters 29 through 32—now streaming on Disney+!—to catch up. The fate of the universe hangs in the balance in many of these movies, but, to put it bluntly, so what? Especially since we’ve now been told that there are infinite universes? Nothing real hangs in the balance in these movies anymore, because nothing can hang in the balance on conveyor belts, and that’s what these films have become. A movie year that’s virtually free of superhero movies—like the one we’re about to experience—could create pent-up demand. But it could also be an interesting cultural reset, as if we’re all collectively waking up from a very long slumber.

A last thought about stakes: They have nothing to do with size. One of my favorite movies of 2023, Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings, is about a middle-aged professor (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who overhears her husband (Tobias Menzies) telling a friend that he doesn’t … I’m shaking as I type this … think her new book is that good. Readers, my stomach was in knots. I saw someone on social media say that that doesn’t really sound like a movie-sized plot. Let me testify right now that I would have watched a Hobbit-length trilogy on this subject. Thankfully, one was not needed, because over their careers, Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus have both become absolute masters of the small, wholly believable bourgeois mortification, and in this movie, they show us, with extraordinary economy, that in a delicately constructed relationship, a small thing can be everything. Dana, I know you liked this movie as much as I did. Is it just a writers-watching-writers thing? P.S. This isn’t personal, I swear. My husband likes my books! At least, that’s … that’s what he tells me …

Off to double-check right now,

Mark

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