How Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will wrap up a disastrous year for superhero movies

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has yet to open, and the DC sequel could face potentially rough waters to rival its predecessor.

Whatever the results for that film, however, nothing has been more jarring for major studios in 2023 than the no-good, very-bad year superhero movies have experienced, collectively underperforming in a manner as abrupt as Superman being confronted with a large chunk of Kryptonite.

In hindsight, the disappointing results for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania way back in February turned out to be the canary in the coalmine, representing an unexpected crack in Marvel's armour. Since then, DC adaptations from Warner Bros. (like CNN and Newshub, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery) The Flash and Blue Beetle fell far short of expectations, leaving behind more red ink than a red blur.

The real shocker, though, came in November with the complete collapse of The Marvels, a sequel to the 2019 hit Captain Marvel that has generated a mere US$84 million at the North American box office, less than a fifth of what its predecessor mustered, and the first Marvel title to fall short of $100 million in domestic release.

For Marvel and DC, only the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie clearly bucked the trend, grossing nearly US$850 million worldwide, with an honourable mention to the animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

What happened? As is so often the case with such developments, a combination of factors appear responsible, although the sudden nature of the way viewers stopped venturing to the multiplex mirrored the proverbial speeding locomotive. In addition, because these movies take a long time to make and can't be produced (yet, anyway) on the cheap due to the reliance of digital effects, any attempted fix will take time and amounts to trying to redirect an ocean liner that's already well out to sea.

The coronavirus pandemic, obviously, made a percentage of movie-goers more reluctant to see films in theaters, and more accustomed to and comfortable with consuming them at home, never mind questions of spoilers or fear of missing out.

If that issue was beyond Hollywood's control, almost everything else can be traced to decisions that diluted these comic-book franchises, beginning with ordering multiple series to help launch and fuel subscriber growth for streaming services like Disney+ and Max. Even Disney CEO Bob Iger conceded there were "too many" sequels, reducing the caliber of its films.

While there were almost certainly simply too many mediocre movies, with something like The Flash it wasn't as much the audience rejected it (though some did) as they just didn't show up in the kind of numbers these movies require to be profitable.

In that regard star Ezra Miller's legal issues probably didn't help, any more than those facing Jonathan Majors, the Ant-Man villain who had been slated to play a key role in Marvel's next phase before his conviction for assault and harassment of a former girlfriend.

In hindsight, the superhero movie likely peaked in 2019 with the operatic pre-pandemic high of Avengers: Endgame, a cherry on top of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that would have been difficult to replicate under the best of circumstances.

Throw in Infinity War and Black Panther – also huge hits, with the latter even earning an Oscar nomination – and DC enjoying its best box-office results with Aquaman in 2018, sailing away with US$1.15 billion globally, and a degree of irrational exuberance inevitably followed.

Whatever the causes, after relying on superhero movies as the foundation of their box-office efforts, major studios face a reckoning, and tough choices, as their once-invincible cash cows look unexpectedly vulnerable.

While certain movies, like Barbie and Avatar 2, have demonstrated that people will still go out to see what they consider big events, the challenge facing Marvel and DC isn't just a blip. And unlike the resolution of Endgame, they can only address that by the decisions they make going forward, not looking back.