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2023: The year Hollywood blockbusters had something to say

The success of films like Barbie and Oppenheimer suggests a change of direction in Hollywood and with audiences

Barbie, Oppenheimer, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Elemental, and Killers of the Flower Moon all grappled with big themes in 2023. (Disney/Warner Bros./Universal/Apple)
Barbie, Oppenheimer, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Elemental, and Killers of the Flower Moon all grappled with big themes in 2023. (Disney/Warner Bros./Universal/Apple)

2023 has been a landmark year in movies for a number of reasons, most notably the shift in the types of stories that are finding the most success. For the first time since 2013, the most successful Hollywood movie is not a sequel, but Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

The tale of Mattel’s signature doll (Margot Robbie) stepping out into the real world became a cinematic phenomenon, with audiences and cinemas turning pink for the film event of the year. Furthermore, the comedy stood out from traditional summer ‘tentpole’ blockbusters in terms of storytelling, with a plot that examines feminism, patriarchy, and mental health among other things. Many loved it, some hated it, but everyone was talking about it.

Far from being alone in this creativity, Barbie famously opened on the same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a tense biographical drama about the creation of the atomic bomb and the consequences of being the “Destroyer of Worlds”.

PHOENIXVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA - JULY 16: An employee adds letters for upcoming film releases
Oppenheimer and Barbie shared top billing in July 2023. (Getty)

This odd scheduling clash led to an initial stand off, and then collaboration, with fans online embracing the idea of a very unusual double bill, affectionately dubbed “Barbenheimer”. Indeed, nothing seemed usual about their dual release. Conventional wisdom says neither film should have led the worldwide box office, particularly when released together, yet a sea of hype lifted both films, with the stars of each movie publicly supporting the other.

It meant “Barbenheimer” weekend was a win for both titles, with Barbie going on to be the highest grossing film of the year ($1.4bn) and Oppenheimer taking third spot with $950m, the highest grossing biopic of all time and Nolan’s most successful film outside of The Dark Knight Trilogy.

“In truth it would be difficult to envisage two more different films or subject matters” admits Phil Clapp, chief executive of The UK Cinema Association. “What probably does link them – aside from their release date – is the skill shown by their directors and casts in telling their quite different stories in an engaging and entertaining way”.

Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for Box Office Pro, believes the novelty of the storytelling captured audiences’ attention. “Both offered fresh content in a world that had become dominated by comic book movies, remakes, and long-running franchises,” he says. “For each to hit so strongly with moviegoer word of mouth was a genuine cherry on top of an already impressive and unpredictable phenomenon."

Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning - Part One. (Paramount)
Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson were facing an AI enemy in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning - Part One. (Paramount)

Alongside Barbenheimer, a number of movies broached serious issues in their big budget movies. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One imagined the dangers of AI, as for the first time Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt wasn’t chasing a human adversary, but an algorithm.

Pixar’s Elemental, about the love between being made of fire and water, drew inspiration from director Peter Sihn’s upbringing in a diverse neighbourhood, becoming a hit through positive word of mouth. In the world of superheroes, Marvel’s Guardians of The Galaxy Volume 3 showed the horrors of animal experimentation, as Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) went back to face his past. The film’s themed impressed animal rights organisation Peta so much that it made director James Gunn their person of the year for 2023.

In streaming, Netflix scored a hit with animated adventure Nimona, which worked LGBTQ+ themes into its action; while Apple created a buzz with Martin Scorsese’s Killers of The Flower Moon, an epic drama exploring the exploitation of Native American cultures. Where once grand spectacle meant success, studios are acknowledging the power of packing a dramatic punch.

Nimona. (Netflix)
Netflix's Nimona was praised for its progressive inclusivity. (Netflix)

Are we seeing a shift in what we want from blockbusters, away from escapism in favour of something more serious? “Audience habits and interests are always evolving” Robbins replies, “and keen filmmakers recognise that by weaving modern themes and real-world concerns into the broader tapestry of escapism that many of these movies offer”.

Clapp, however, reminds us that a healthy cinema landscape means something for everyone. “I think you can discern those kinds of ‘serious’ themes in some of the major titles of the year, but equally the top ten titles for 2023 so far at the UK box office include The Super Mario Bros Movie, The Little Mermaid, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, all of which are pretty much undiluted escapism”.

Elemental (Disney/Pixar)
Pixar's Elemental explored the immigrant experience. (Disney/Pixar)

Looking ahead, It’s safe to imagine that Pixar’s Inside Out 2, Alex Garland’s Civil War, and the forthcoming Joker sequel will offer plot that aim to both entertain and inform. Beyond that, however, we will have to wait until other films start rolling to see if the successes of 2023 are an an outlier or a trend.

For Robbins, it’s about keeping things fresh regardless of the tone. “It's a balancing act” he explains. “Audiences are always on the lookout for a variety of films and stories that resonate on multiple levels, whether those movies are subtle or more heavy-handed in their approach to certain subjects”.

Clapp concurs, saying “there’s a need to appeal to the widest possible audience and audience tastes, whether through tackling more serious themes or offering simple entertainment – if cinemas are to continue to draw audiences new or old back to the big screen”.

Read more: Year in review

Watch: The year of Barbenheimer