Did Hollywood finally step outside the comfort zone in 2023?

This was a year when filmmakers got audacious to make a shift towards story-telling and audiences ditched the capes to embrace originality

By Yasser Usman

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This mage released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Margot Robbie in a scene from 'Barbie.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
This mage released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Margot Robbie in a scene from "Barbie." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Published: Thu 28 Dec 2023, 9:09 PM

by yasser usman

As the velvet drapes close on 2023, I turn my gaze towards Hollywood, not with a tinge of nostalgia, but with a spark of hope. For this year, it felt like Hollywood finally took a collective breath, stepped outside the comfort zone of spandex-clad saviours, and rediscovered the magic of storytelling in all its diverse, magnificent forms. This year was about the emergence of two indisputable truths: a significant shift in storytelling towards depth and originality, and a resounding chorus of female excellence that shattered barriers and redefined the game. Before we step into the new year, it’s crucial to reiterate these impactful shifts.

Let’s start with a notable fact: for two decades, the box office throne seemed perpetually tilted towards the IP dominance — those franchises and CGI spectacles. With the exception of Avatar (2009), every year since 2004, an intellectual property (IP) or superhero blockbuster has consistently claimed the top spot at the domestic box office. But in 2022, signs of superhero fatigue became apparent. Big-budget Marvel and DC offerings like Black Adam (2022) and Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), usually guaranteed box office juggernauts, received lukewarm reception echoing the growing desire for something fresh. And this year finally, the cracks became unmistakably prominent. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) tanked, the female-centric The Marvels (2023) turned out to be the biggest flop of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and DC’s The Flash (2023) was a major disappointment. Instead, audiences flocked to something unexpected, something that resonated beyond the spectacle of CGI action: stories with heart, with soul. The year’s crowning glory? None other than Greta Gerwig’s audacious and witty Barbie (2023) that wasn’t just a critical darling but also the highest-grossing film of the year. Barbie sparked a cultural conversation challenging the notions of femininity, embraced diversity, and dared to be both playful and profound.

This simmering trend of good old storytelling was also fuelled by filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, whose Oppenheimer explored the weight of the atomic bomb, and Martin Scorsese, who explored a black chapter of American history with Killers of the Flower Moon and Ridley Scott’s intimate portrayal of the French emperor, Napolean. Similarly, David Fincher’s The Killer transcended the boundaries of traditional releases. After a brief theatrical stint, the film found a new life on Netflix racking up tens of millions of viewing hours and dominating the Top 10 list for weeks. It was a resounding declaration that thought-provoking filmmaking can thrive even within the mainstream waters of streaming. These weren’t popcorn flicks; they were challenging, thought-provoking films based on real events and dared to engage with the complexities of the human experience. And here’s the thing: these were commercially successful. They proved that audiences welcome stories that make them think and make them feel. You can also decode it as a message to Hollywood studios: give us depth, give us artistic merit, and we’ll show up.

This isn’t to diminish the achievements of immensely entertaining franchise blockbusters such as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One or John Wick: Chapter 4. The key takeaway isn’t about pitting art against popcorn flicks in a binary manner. It’s about catering to a multitude of tastes and the enthusiastic embrace of this diversity by audiences.

Moreover, this year, the spotlight wasn’t just on the screen; it was on the women who light it up. While Gerwig and Robbie’s playful rebellion gave Hollywood a mammoth blockbuster in cinema, the music scene was experiencing its own power shift. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, two of the biggest stars on the planet, redefined the concert experience with their epic tours. Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour and Swift’s The Eras Tour were dazzling spectacles of music, and visual artistry. Both tours shattered records, selling out stadiums in minutes and leaving millions desperate for a ticket. Taylor Swift was declared Time Magazine’s ‘person of the year’ owing to the wild success of her Eras Tour and its cinematic film.

Looking ahead, what might take the reins from superheroes in the coming year? As the allure of caped crusaders dwindles and superhero franchises contend with diminishing returns, a fascinating digital sparkle emerges on the cinematic horizon: the ascent of video game adaptations. This year, it wasn’t merely Mario speeding his way to box office triumph; it was a year where the eerie thrills of Five Nights at Freddy’s garnered critical acclaim, and HBO’s The Last of Us demonstrated that deep emotional resonance wasn’t exclusive to art-house tearjerkers. With Nintendo gearing up for a Legend of Zelda film, the landscape is shifting towards video game blockbusters. 2023 could be etched as a pivotal juncture — not solely due to Marvel Studios encountering its first box-office flop. While audiences might still gravitate towards films bearing titles like Avengers or Spider Man, the era of their unchallenged supremacy has undoubtedly waned.

And to the artists, both established and emerging, the message is clear: depth, originality, and a willingness to break the mould can attract crowds. Let 2023 be a turning point. Let it be the year the audience took back the narrative, with open hearts and a ravenous appetite for stories that move us, shake us, and leave us wanting more. Let’s keep the popcorn flowing, and the debates sizzling, because ultimately, that’s what makes the whole show so damn entertaining.

Here’s hoping 2023 wasn’t just a fluke.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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