It was supposed to usher in a great revival of movie-going, but as 2023 approaches its mid-point, the year has hosted more near-misses and outright disasters than genuine blockbusters.
Not that there aren’t things to celebrate. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” have generated massive business, the kind that would have been impressive in pre-COVID times. And movies like “Cocaine Bear,” “Scream VI” and “Evil Dead Rise” have been solid mid-budget hits, selling tickets in the spring and winter months when cinemas are hustling to keep seats filled.
Overall, the domestic box office stands at $4.35 billion, a 20.7% improvement over where ticket sales clocked in at the same point in the pandemic-blighted 2022, according to Comscore. So things are getting better, and there are several promising films on the horizon such as “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” and “Barbie” that could prove to be big summer hits.
But, there’s also been a lot of red ink spilled as studios struggle to figure out what kinds of movies are compelling enough to convince people to hit the multiplexes instead of waiting a few weeks for them to bubble up on streaming. In other words, don’t hold your breath for “The Flash 2” or a new, four-hour version of Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid.”
Here’s a look at the movies that scored, struck out, or fell somewhere in the middle, during the first half of 2023.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Opening weekend: $146 million
Current global gross: $1.33 billion
Verdict: It’s-a blockbuster! “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” holds the record for the biggest opening weekend of the year (so far) and managed to sustain that enthusiasm among audiences young and old, thanks to brand recognition and heaping doses of nostalgia for the generation-spanning video game. It’s the first movie of the year to achieve the coveted $1 billion milestone, and also the highest-grossing film based on a video game, which is no small feat considering Hollywood’s past attempts to translate stories from consoles to cinemas. A Mushroom Kingdom-sized win, any way you slice it.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Opening weekend: $118 million
Current global gross: $827 million
Verdict: All the concern about a softer-than-expected opening weekend for “Vol. 3” was for naught. The third installment in the James Gunn-directed trilogy rebounded nicely in the weeks following its debut, successfully avoiding the momentum problem that’s been plaguing other pandemic-era Marvel movies. No, it hasn’t eclipsed its predecessor, 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” which is the biggest of the series with $863 million. And it’s yet another recent MCU entry that failed to hit $1 billion. But “Guardians,” which has always been quirkier than its comic book universe comrades, still hit the box office trifecta.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Opening weekend: $120 million
Current global gross: $560 million
Verdict: “Across the Spider-Verse” is a reminder that superhero fatigue doesn’t exist when the movie is actually good. With a fresh take on the adventures of a time-tested hero, Sony’s animated comic book adaptation is another box office winner. The $100 million-budgeted sequel even surpassed the entire theatrical run of its predecessor, 2018’s Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” after less than two weeks of release. Naturally, Miles Morales, as Spider-Man is known in this universe, isn’t ready to hang up his mask. A third installment, “Beyond the Spider-Verse,” is set for 2024.
John Wick: Chapter 4
Opening weekend: $73 million
Current global gross: $427 million
Verdict: “John Wick 4” not only crushed the opening weekend of its predecessors, but also ended its run on the big screen as the top earner of the four films. That makes the action series, led by Keanu Reeves as a legendary assassin, one of the rare original properties to keep growing and improving upon its predecessors in terms of ticket sales. That’s good news because Lionsgate keeps upping the production budgets; “Chapter 4” has the highest price tag yet at $100 million. Odds are high (table) that Reeves isn’t retiring the nunchucks anytime soon.
Opening weekend: $58 million
Current global gross: $275 million
Verdict: It could have been risky to hand the gloves of a popular franchise to its star (in his directorial debut, no less). But Michael B. Jordan, who directed and led the third installment in the “Rocky” spinoff series, deftly navigated the ring and delivered a box office knockout with “Creed III.” It bested the sequel, 2018’s “Creed II” ($214 million), as the highest-grossing entry. This round goes to Adonis.
Opening weekend: $15.8 million
Current global gross: $52 million
Verdict: “Jesus Revolution,” a faith-based story starring Kelsey Grammer, isn’t necessarily one for record books. But the low-budget movie resonated enough to turn a heavenly profit in its theatrical run, demonstrating the buying power of the Bible set.
Opening weekend: $67 million
Current global gross: $689 million
Verdict: Weighed down by its gargantuan $340 million budget, “Fast X” will struggle to make money during its theatrical run, raising questions about whether or not this franchise is running out of gas. Domestically, where “Fast X” is hovering below the $150 million mark, the answer is yes. Overseas, where “Fast X” has earned nearly $550 million, there’s still a lot of love for Dom Toretto and crew. Look for “Fast XI” to be significantly cheaper unless Universal wants to keep making these things as write-downs.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Opening weekend: $37 million
Current global gross: $208 million
Verdict: Critics loved this witty, spirited take on the venerable role-playing game. The problem was audiences who weren’t well-versed in paladins, druids and bards mostly steered clear. Plus, with a production budget of $150 million, “Honor Among Thieves” will have to find a lot of loot on-demand if it’s going to heist its way into the black.
The Little Mermaid
Opening weekend: $95 million
Current global gross: $503 million
Verdict: Disney has enjoyed great success raiding its animation vault to turn the likes of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” into glossy live-action remakes. And, on paper, “The Little Mermaid” with its story of young love and killer soundtrack had all the ingredients of another box office magic act. So what went wrong? The film has floundered at the foreign box office, earning less than 50% of its global haul in overseas territories. In comparison, the 2019 remake of “Aladdin,” which had a similar domestic debut to “The Little Mermaid,” picked up 66% of its more than $1 billion global gross from international markets. Without that support, Ariel and company have found themselves adrift.
Opening weekend: $14.4 million
Current global gross: $89 million
Verdict: Why pick on “Air”? For an adult drama to earn nearly $90 million at the global box office these days is nearly unprecedented. It’s a sign that audience affection for Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Viola Davis is enough to lift this story of Nike’s courtship of Michael Jordan above the glut of superhero stories and sequels flooding the marketplace. All true. The problem is that “Air” cost $90 million to make, slightly more than it brought in, which doesn’t account for the tens of million spent on marketing. For Amazon, which wrote the check for the film, “Air” may move some sneakers when it debuts on Prime Video, making an unprofitable theatrical release, a much more profitable marketing venture.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Opening weekend: $6.7 million
Current global gross: $21.4 million
Verdict: This adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved coming-of-age novel isn’t a disaster. It received glowing reviews for the way it tenderly navigated its title character’s awkward steps into young adulthood, earning more than $20 million at the box office (a decent result for a low-key dramedy). The problem is that “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” cost $30 million to make.
Opening weekend: $55 million
Current global gross: $210 million
Verdict: In some alternate timeline, “The Flash,” which was touted by its own studio as “one of the greatest superhero movies of all time,” turned into a huge hit. But in this universe, audiences largely ignored the comic book adaptation, starring Ezra Miller as the eponymous speedster. It cost $200 million to make and roughly $100 million to market, so it’s shaping up to be a massive money loser for Warner Bros. It’s the second DC installment to flop in spectacular fashion after its new bosses, James Gunn and Peter Safran, announced a forthcoming reset to the sprawling superhero universe. So good luck to the two remaining DC entries in limbo, “Blue Beetle” (Aug. 18) and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” (Dec. 20).
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Opening weekend: $106 million
Current global gross: $467 million
Verdict: After scoring a trilogy-best debut, “Ant-Man 3” collapsed with less than $500 million worldwide, a benchmark that should be easy for Marvel. In turn, it’s one of the rare MCU movies to lose a lot of money in its theatrical run, serving as an unfortunate reminder that opening weekends don’t always tell the entire story. In this case, Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang fumbled the chance at happily-ever-after.
Shazam: Fury of the Gods
Opening weekend: $30 million
Current global gross: $133 million
Verdict: “Shazam” clearly wasn’t the magic word at the box office. It’s hard to understate the theatrical tragedy of “Fury of the Gods,” one of the biggest superhero misfires in recent memory. Sure, the $100 million movie cost less than recent DC installments, like “The Flash,” but it was completely rejected by moviegoers across the globe, ending its domestic run with an embarrassing $57 million. That’s roughly the same as the original, 2019’s “Shazam,” earned in its opening weekend.
Book Club: The Next Chapter
Opening weekend: $6.7 million
Current global gross: $27 million
Verdict: The original “Book Club” became a sleeper hit with $100 million globally. Focus Features took over the follow-up from Paramount (which released the first) and wrongly assumed the combined wattage of Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen would be potent enough to recapture the same older audience that fell in love with the first. But the reception to the septuagenarian sequel was kind of “meh,” so moviegoers tossed aside the $20 million comedy like an old book.
Opening weekend: $8 million
Current global gross: $26 million
Verdict: Pour one out for the sidekicks. “Renfield,” which focuses on Count Dracula’s rebelling servant, cratered at the box office, adding to Universal’s failed attempts to mine riches from its vast monster legacy. Its $65 million price tag makes it even more painful that ticket buyers warded off the film like a vampire would garlic.
Beau Is Afraid
Opening weekend: $2.6 million
Current global gross: $10.9 million
Verdict: A24 shelled out $35 million for director Ari Aster’s latest mind-bender, which fizzled after struggling to connect with mainstream audiences. Joaquin Phoenix stars in the head-trip of a movie, described by one outlet as a “three-hour-long panic attack.” It’s a tough environment for indies of any style, but offering up that kind of anxiety instead of cinematic Prozac, didn’t help to sell tickets.