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How Did a Sciency Movie Nuke a Superhero Movie?

Picture the scene, if you will: It’s sometime in the Before Time, in the blissful ignorance of the late 2010s, and I tell you about two new summer movies that are about to premiere. One is a superhero flick featuring the long-awaited return of an iconic actor in the role that made his career. The other is a prestige, 3-hour-long biopic that consists almost entirely of a bunch of guys sitting in rooms talking. Which one would you expect to flop, and which one would you bet on to bring in almost a billion dollars worldwide? Yes, that’s purely rhetorical.

It’s a funny thing to think about, though, because earlier this year I was excited about two summer releases that fit those exact descriptions. But it seems that in our topsy-turvy, post-pandemic world, the box office really has been turned upside down because Oppenheimer became a worldwide sensation just about a month after The Flash crashed and burned. (Yes, this is me admitting I was excited for The Flash. Just roll with it.) What the heck happened?

As a movie lover generally and a champion of the theatrical experience more specifically, I will admit to being particularly anxious about the fate of the cinema as an institution after the pandemic. We all spent the better part of two years cooped up in our apartments, avoiding any semblance of crowded public spaces, and learned to just stream the latest blockbusters from the comfort of our living rooms. It’s only logical that after getting so comfortable with couch viewing, it would take more than a little coaxing to get us all back in line for the popcorn. My fear is that, when push comes to shove, not enough of us will be lured back to keep the cinema as we know it alive. And there’s good reason for me to feel that way, as the aggregate box office numbers are still significantly below where they were in 2019.

Do the shocking financial performances of The Flash and Oppenheimer offer us some clues as to the secrets of the weird post-COVID box office? Maybe, but first and foremost they tell us a great deal about those two movies. Context is everything, after all. The Flash is a long-delayed movie starring an actor who is more famous for assaulting people than for their filmography, all set in a cinematic universe that was announced by the studio (itself suffering the growing pains of a recent merger) to be defunct about 6 months before the film’s release. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is the passion project of one of the most recognizable big-movie directors of our time—himself a significant box office draw—starring a murderer’s row of A-list actors that benefitted from a viral social media association with Barbie, the summer’s biggest movie in the lead up to its release. So yeah, there’s that.

But I do think these two movies tell us a little more than that. They are the perfect illustration of the truth of the current box office, which is that people won’t just go to the movies reflexively anymore. Gone are the days of paying to see absolute schlock because you’re at least out of the house. Indoor activities simply aren’t anyone’s first idea of a good time these days. (As a side note, I’ll point out that there’s evidence, at least in places like my home base of Richmond, that people are turning to outdoor entertainment like minor league baseball instead.) If people are going to leave the cushy, inviting embrace of their couches, you’re going to have to show them something new and enticing.

And as The Flash can attest, we’ve all seen plenty of superhero movies already. But it’s been a while since we all had a chance to see something directed by Christopher Nolan (Tenet doesn’t count because, you know, COVID), and even longer since we’ve seen anything with Josh Hartnett in it. That probably has something to do with why Oppenheimer is likely to outgross four of the last six MCU releases by the end of its run.

And it’s not just these two movies that illustrate this trend. Just look at Barbie, the biggest blockbuster of the year and the other half of the Barbenheimer social media craze. A live-action Barbie movie is something entirely new, and it has already brought in over a billion dollars. But we’ve definitely seen a few Indiana Jones movies before (four, in fact), and so nobody went to see The Dial of Destiny, which brought in even less money than Sound of Freedom. Now, of course, there is additional context surrounding each of those movies as well. Barbie was directed by Greta Gerwig, who is fast becoming a reliable box office draw in her own right, and it features the best performance of Margot Robbie’s career.

Although Harrison Ford has been bringing people to the theater for nearly 50 years now, many in today’s audiences are too young to have much nostalgia for Indiana Jones, who had his heyday decades before a lot of them were born. You can also point to a few box office successes that undermine my thesis, like the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, the fifth highest-grossing movie of 2023 domestically. And of course, there’s last year’s sensational Avatar: The Way of Water, but I feel like I can call a mulligan with director James Cameron, who has now brought us 3 of the top 5 highest-grossing films of all time.

Regardless of whether I’m identifying true causation or mere correlation, I do strongly believe that the movie theater business will have to adapt to our post-COVID environment, where people won’t show up to the cinema quite like they used to. That could be a good thing too, as lower attendance will likely force filmmakers to lower their budgets. I’d love nothing more than to see the demise of the bloated, behemothic, in favor of more mid-budget and independent films. You heard me right: Give me less Fast X. Bring on the Cocaine Bear.