After facing production halts and delays for a year during the post-COVID hiatus, superhero movies gradually started making a comeback in 2021–2022, and 2023 was geared up to be the biggest year for the genre since Avengers: Endgame, with some of the most anticipated releases slated across two big franchises. Instead, by the end of the year, the said genre had lost its position as Hollywood’s regular top earner; the relevance of superhero media on the silver screen was put into question, and both franchises went through some massive setbacks in their respective cinematic universes. The reason for such unprecedented rejection of the genre that dominated the market for over a decade or so is rooted in the utter callousness of the makers, who had taken the audience for granted and, as a result, spent little to no effort pushing the boundaries of the genre or coming up with inventive or courageous narratives that could dispel the prevailing skepticism of stagnation.
Even amidst this rather horrendous period, which fans would like to forget, several entries managed to stand out by avoiding the aforementioned shortcomings—by excelling in visual storytelling, highlighting the multifaceted nature of the genre, and prioritizing a character-driven approach. These titles provide a glimpse of the untapped potential and expansive diversity of superhero fiction, which has been barely explored despite multitudes of releases over the past decade. To assess what made these entries click and what went awry with the rest of them, we would like to briefly discuss them while ranking them in an ascending order in qualitative terms.
Third Time Losing the Ant-Charm
The golden period of the MCU during the second and third phases saw the meticulous development of the central antagonist of the overarching narrative in the form of Thanos’ uprising in the Infinity Saga. Fans had similar expectations and more with Kang’s story arc in “Infinity Saga,” and the first superhero movie of the year, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, had the responsibility of building up the next big threat to MCU lore. However, it turned out to be a Star Wars aping, generic MCU comedic nonsense snoozefest, which not only undermined Kang’s potential but also marked the lowest point of the Ant-Man franchise through wacky characterization. Contrary to the high-stakes plotline hinted through the trailers, the third Ant-Man movie continued the MCU tradition of underwhelming with the final product, which fails to excite fans and adheres to a safe, bland approach to storytelling. The very fact that the movie had enough material to adapt a credible, menacing villain origin tale while providing a new heft to Scott Lang’s titular character—and spectacularly failed to do so while presenting a mockery of fans’ expectations—posits it at the lowest ranked superhero flick of the year in our catalog.
Shazam Sequel Crash Lands
The first Shazam (2019) managed to amuse fans while retelling the story of the original Captain Marvel through its charming, witty, and wholesome style, and reasonably, fans had significant expectations for the sequel. In fact, introducing the daughters of Zeus as three original antagonistic characters to Shazam lore and a host of mythological creatures—Shazam: Fury of the Gods—had the potential to be a worthy successor to its predecessor. However, the extreme tonal shift in the narrative, piled with Zachary Levi hamming it up with goofiness, which the script didn’t even demand, ruined the cinematic experience and drew the fury of the fans instead. Adding a shoehorned cameo of Wonder Woman that leads nowhere instead of including an in-universe continuity of Black Adam only highlighted the confused state of DCEU, and the entire mess was reflected through a disastrous, record-low box office.
All Flash, No Substance
Speaking of missed opportunities and unrealized potential, The Flash tops the list of most anticipated projects, which ultimately turned out to be a dumpster fire. It is a shame that the character who introduced the concept of the multiverse to pop culture in the 1960s was subjected to a half-hearted, shambolic display of the same concept in his solo cinematic venture. Having a solid foundation in the source material, i.e., “Flashpoint Paradox,” the movie could have fared much better without depending on mere nostalgia cash grabs and using the multiverse as a plot device. With Michael Keaton’s Batman and Sasha Calle’s Supergirl being the only saving graces of a done-to-death story, The Flash couldn’t even match the best of its CW TV series counterpart. If not for the emotional core, which was somewhat respected during the climactic moments, this utter disappointment would have ranked lower on our list.
The Marvel Trio Fall Flat
It’s a weird coincidence that both DC and Marvel’s versions of Captain Marvel had their first solo movie and sequel released in the same year and that both went through a downgrade in their second entry as well. MCU’s Captain Marvel had received some flak for bland characterization; therefore, it was decided to add two more Marvel legacy characters to add a new dimension to Carol Danver’s titular protagonist. Unfortunately, the additional cast wasn’t given strong enough treatment to justify their role in this movie, and adding to the run-of-the-mill world-ending threat posed by a generic villain, The Marvels didn’t leave a lot to chew on in its short runtime. Decent CGI and a gleeful musical number allowed the movie to become a somewhat entertaining watch, although a rather forgettable one.
Aquaman Takes DCEU To Its Watery Grave
With the fate of DCEU already sealed, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the last entry of the franchise, was riding on such little expectation that a majority of fans didn’t even know that it had been released already. The sequel to DCEU’s financially most successful venture was as derivative as could be, with the plot and key visuals liberally borrowing from The Lord of the Rings, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and other classic fantasy tales, but was entertaining enough to be forgiven for the transgression. Director James Wan had promised a more political approach with the sequel, glimmers of which can be seen in the Black Manta aggravating global warming plot, which could have been far more impactful if the real-world perpetrators would have been held accountable instead.
Merry Little Batman Brought The Festive Mood
Batman stories already share an undefined aesthetic relation with Christmas Eve; adding Robin and Joker to the mix only intensifies the fun factor. After being fed up with a prolonged period of brooding, grim, dark Batman stories in animation, we finally had Merry Little Batman, which showcases our beloved Dark Knight and his bratty son Damian in a lighthearted, kid-friendly fashion, which never undermines the emotional core of the characters in the process. Ronald Searle’s art style mashed with old-school Cartoon Network animation justified the quirky, colorful, ‘Christmassy’ adventure with Robin, aka Damian, in lead, and a healthy dose of heart and humor ensured the movie to became DC’s most stylish animation flick in recent years.
The Blue Beetle Represented Latinidad Well
Speaking of stylish superhero flicks, DC’s best cinematic entry of the year turned out to be Blue Beetle, a story that seems like a call-back to the superhero origins of the early 90s but showed heart and represented POC in a proper way to make up for the negligible derivative problems. The tale of Jaime Reyes encapsulates the fun, emotional coming-of-age journey of a teenage superhero whose roots are embedded in the culture and experiences of his family and community, thereby making a solid impact as the first Latino-character-led superhero romp. The appreciation for the relatively lesser-known teenage super was so high that James Gunn retroactively added Jaime Reyes’ version of Blue Beetle to his upcoming DCU. With a banger soundtrack to assist, adherence to the Blue Beetle legacy right since the golden age, and crisp, clear CGI work on display, Blue Beetle is definitely a winner, which unfortunately isn’t reflected by the abysmal box office records.
The Spider-Verse Expansion Is Masterful
As the much-anticipated sequel to the first Spider-verse movie, Across the Spider-Verse doubled down on the multiverse concept to present a definitive Spider-character gallery, which emphasizes the timeless quality of the titular hero and the limitless possibilities presented through the comic-book medium itself. With every single frame of the movie oozing vibrancy and creativity, Across the Spider-Verse is another testament to animation’s superior dominance in the faithful presentation of comic-book-oriented stories. If not for a predictable plot and repetition of the multiverse, which turned out to be a bit overwhelming and part of the creative choice marring the narrative, the movie surely could have earned the top spot on our list with ease.
The Guardians Trilogy Ends With An Emotional Plea For The Voiceless
James Gunn’s hot streak of successful, pioneering comic-book ventures continued this year as well, although this time not in DC, where he is presiding over the entire upcoming narrative universe (DCU), but in his former workplace in MCU. As a comic-book movie director, Gunn has never shied away from displaying his affection for the voiceless, mainly through his anthropomorphic characters, and in the final movie of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, he seems to have completed a full circle with an emotionally devastating chronicle of Rocket Racoon. Chukwudi Iwuji’s diabolical performance as the High Evolutionary, whose experiments and exploitations on hapless creatures in an effort to achieve absolute perfection parallel human egocentrism, shows a mirror to the audience, whose reluctance and apathy are brutally questioned by the director. The brilliant prosthetic work, CGI, and action choreography take a backseat as we, as the audience, get engrossed in Rocket’s journey and find solace at the end as the best character of the team finds acceptance in himself. Some viewers might feel Spider-Verse to be the deserving best superhero movie of the year, but the fact that The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 exemplifies the superhero genre’s diversity by striving to convey experience without depending on genre trappings is enough to warrant it the top spot.
Compared to the previous year, 2024 will see fewer superhero activities in live action, which feels like a necessary detox at this point given the big studio’s quantity over quality approach, which is maligning the genre big time. MCU has opted for a course correction and delayed a number of their releases, and DC has Joker: Folie à Deux slated as the only comic-book-oriented release of the year. Maybe the time gap will allow creators to reassess their strategy, learn from the recent misfires, and utilize the full potential of superhero fiction, which will never lose its universal, timeless appeal as long as imagination reigns supreme.