2023 Box Office Showdown

2023, via Dreamstime stock images

The box office came back in full during 2022, and I tried my best to predict the outcome – and largely completely muffed it! This was partially due to an unpredictable new market post-pandemic, which saw several surefire hits from Disney underperform massively. And really, did anyone see Top Gun: Maverick winning the domestic battle in what’s easily the biggest underdog victory since American Sniper?

But 2023 poses an even more challenging picture, with the glut of movies that held off during Covid finally hitting home with an overcrowded box office. After a quiet January that largely let Avatar: The Way of Water have the run of the box office, with only one original hit – the sci-fi horror movie M3gan – the race will kick off in full in February.

So how competitive is this year? In picking a top twenty, these are some of the movies that did NOT make the cut for me – superhero movies Blue Beetle and Kraven the Hunter, horror sequels The Nun 2 and Scream 6, and top franchise installments Ghostbusters: Afterlife 2 and Trolls 3. Sadly, I can’t give a spot to the meme-worthy Cocaine Bear or Renfield either. All are likely to have solid audiences – well, maybe not Kraven – but they’re up against some of the heaviest hitters in Hollywood.

And of course, not everything will wind up sticking to its planned release date – last year saw several top movies, especially DC ones, drop out of 2022. But without further ado, let’s look at the top 25 – or 26 – movies of 2023, according to my predictions.

25. Oppenheimer/Barbie

Rarely have two dueling movies sparked this much interest, and they couldn’t be more different. In one corner, we’ve got Christopher Nolan’s intense historical drama about the birth of the atom bomb. In the other, we have Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s meta comedy about the iconic doll. One of them will outperform the other, I’m not sure which, but I don’t think either one will be a mainstream hit – even if they’re likely to have far longer legs than many other films. No, that’s not a Barbie joke.

24. John Wick: Chapter 4

This is a good example of a franchise that keeps on building, with the box office going from 43M to 92M to 171M. The four-year gap may have blunted the momentum a little, but Keanu Reeves is still one of the most beloved actors around, and this pulpy franchise should get many action fans back to the theater.

23. Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

One of the biggest gaming franchises of all time, Dungeons and Dragons has a…spotty history in movies and TV. Maybe because it’s meant to be played, not watched. But this jokey, meta comedy starring Chris Pine has gotten good marks for its trailer, and it could very easily tap into a wide cross-generational audience that could help break the streak – even amid some controversy for its parent property’s new management.

22. Shazam: Fury of the Gods

One of three major DC sequels/franchises this year, this has a number of things working against it. It’s basically a vestigal tail now as the DCU is being revamped, its spin-off Black Adam disappointed at the box office, and its lead actor has decided this is the time to make some controversial political statements. However, it does have a trio of iconic actresses as its villainesses, and the trailers have overall gotten good reception. I’m expecting a modest hit but not much more as this version of the characters wraps up. No Mister Mind, alas.

21. 65

It’s hard out here for a non-franchise picture! I’ve only got a few on this list, and the first is this over-the-top Adam Driver thriller about a futuristic pilot stranded on Earth during the age of the dinosaurs. Much like last year’s Free Guy, it’s an engaging concept featuring a bankable star with great special effects. I think it’ll be an enjoyable antidote to the franchise glut and that will help it break out from the competition.

20. Creed III

This sports franchise has been a hit from the start, but it’s never been a massive breakout. I’m expecting this Michael B. Jordan directed edition – sans Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky – to maintain that pattern. Introducing Jonathan Majors – who will star in another film much further down the list – as the new villain, its trailer features a level of intensity not yet seen in the franchise, and these movies will likely continue to do well with their core audience.

19. Elemental

Pixar and Disney have had a rough streak at the box office since they returned to the theater, with Lightyear being the most notable bomb of 2022. This elemental-city romantic comedy will be their second theatrical release – and I don’t expect the down streak to end here. The environment looks visually inventive, but the fire-meets-water love story looks uninspired. It’s like what would happen if they created a Pixar movie in a lab, and I don’t think this will be the movie to get Disney animation back on top.

18. Dune: Part 2

The best-picture-nominated kickoff to the big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic was a modest hit at the box office at a time when they were few and far between, and I’m expecting the sequel to improve on the original. But as this franchise gets into more challenging territory, I’m not sure what it will look like at its peak – this was never the most mainstream of franchises, and director Denis Villeneuve has never aimed for mass audiences.

17. Migration

The biggest x-factor of the year, this is the only movie I’m putting on the list without a trailer or even image to go off. An animated comedy about a family of ducks trying to convince their overprotective father to take them on vacation, it’s going on this list for one reason – it’s Illumination. The studio behind Minions has very rarely had a misfire, and this is slated for the Christmas season – perfectly aimed for families. But it won’t be the top animated film of the year by a long shot.

16. The Flash

I know a lot of people are expecting this Ezra Miller-starring multiversal adventure to bomb or maybe even not be released – given its trainwreck of a star and its strange place in flux in DC’s lineup. But there’s just too much riding on this. Featuring the return of Michael Keaton as Batman, this is likely to be a last hurrah to the previous version of the DC cinematic universe – and that should get enough eyes in theaters for the curiosity factor. Of course, Miller could easily get arrested for something horrible and the movie gets shelved entirely.

15. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

The Transformers franchise was rarely critically acclaimed but always successful – although it ran into rough box office waters with the last two installments. This new volume brings in some of the most popular characters from recent animated incarnations, and seems to have a simpler concept than the last few – giant robots vs. giant animal robots! I think that should be enough to bring some momentum back to the franchise, along with hopefully a shorter run time than the Bay installments.

14. Wonka

Another major wild card this year, this musical prequel to the famous Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film features Timothee Chalamet in the title role and an all-star cast including Keegan Michael-Key, Olivia Colman, and Rowan Atkinson. The holiday season has proven to be rich territory for epic musicals, and this could be a promising way to update the franchise for the modern day. It could be a bizarre bomb, but the creative pedigree – including the director of Paddington – makes me think this will be an out-of-the-box hit.

13. Fast X

The penultimate installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, this series is always bankable for big box office. The last installment was one of the first blockbusters of the post-Covid era, but the franchise has lost some key pieces – including star Dwayne Johnson, who couldn’t get along with franchise lead Vin Diesel. The series has gotten increasingly absurd over the last few, but it’ll always have its audience. I think this one might open a bit lower, but the grand finale will be a megahit.

12. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

The final and most successful of this year’s DC franchises, it also has the element that this is probably the last one before this franchise gets rebooted. I don’t think this will reach the heights of the original or even close, given the heavier competition. However, the original was entertainingly nuts – featuring three different villains and at one point Julie Andrews as a tentacle monster. I think the sequel can benefit from that and send the DCEU out on a high note.

11. Haunted Mansion

Another big wild card with no trailer yet, this is the second attempt at a movie franchise for one of Disney’s most iconic rides. Featuring an all-star cast including Jared Leto, Owen Wilson, Jamie Lee Curtis, LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, and Danny DeVito, and an acclaimed director in Justin Simien, it feels like Disney is putting everything they have into this. It could easily break into the top ten if everything goes right, but I feel like there are too many movies with guaranteed success ahead of it.

10. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Hunger Games franchise was a massive hit – at least for its first three installments, but the finale ran into some surprisingly rough waters. Bringing it back for a prequel focusing on the origins of the villain is a risky move, but the book was a megahit and the franchise has been gone long enough that I think there will be a lot of curiosity. Of all the megabucks YA franchises of the early 2000s, this was the one that seems to have survived with its reputation mostly intact.

9. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

The previous installments in this looooooong-running franchise have all been hits, but never massive, and part ones tend to be the lowest-grossing of the franchise. So why am I predicting this so high? Simple – Top Gun: Maverick. It might not be the same audience, exactly, but I think a large audience will want to see Tom Cruise’s next gravity-defying stunts at almost sixty years old. If the second part is the finale, as seems likely, look for that to do even better.

8. Wish

An animated Disney musical about the origin of the Wishing Star, this Thanksgiving feature got some snickering when it was announced – but I think it’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. This is the first traditional Disney Princess fairy tale since Frozen 2 back in 2019, and it features the acting and singing voice of Oscar winner Ariana De Bose in the lead role. While other Disney and Pixar movies didn’t play to the franchise’s strengths, this is the one that I think will put the studio back on top in animation – at least, relatively, in one of the strongest years for animation ever.

7. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

The first two Ant-Man movies were modest hits, some of the lowest-grossing in the MCU – and that was fine for the small-scale adventures Scott Lang got up to. But I think the franchise is about to take a quantum leap – pun intended. Featuring the time-traveling villain Kang, this dimension-hopping adventure looks like the biggest movie in the franchise by a mile, and also feels like the official kick-off to the first big cosmic threat of the post-Endgame MCU. I could easily see this doubling the box office of the earlier installments, but there are some bigger movies out there – including two more MCU films.

6. The Little Mermaid

Disney’s live-action remakes have always gotten mixed receptions – but they’ve almost always been massive hits despite the grumbling. There was a huge social media controversy when the trailer for this one debuted, featuring Disney’s first Black Ariel – but online noise isn’t always reality. Halle Bailey is likely to deliver a bravura vocal performance in the lead role, the water effects look stunning, and the backlash is likely to make the Black audience even more likely to show up in support. I don’t think it’ll be as big a box office hit as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King were, because those movies have held up even better over the years, but it should be a huge success.

5. The Marvels

Much like the movie above it, Captain Marvel got a huge backlash when it came out – and then was still a smash box office hit. I suspect the sequel will do the same, but it does have one wild card. This is a spin-off not just of that movie, but of two characters who first appeared in Disney Plus series, Monica Rambeau and Kamala Khan. Both have big fanbases, but this movie will also be a test of just how Marvel’s new strategy is working out. It might be the most inside-baseball MCU movie yet, and that may keep it from taking the top Marvel spot.

4. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Part One

The Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is widely considered one of the best superhero movies of all time, featuring some wildly popular characters and stunning animation. But despite that…at the box office, it was the lowest-grossing Spider-man movie, even lower than the reviled The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Maybe it was just the “animation ghetto” – but after the trailer for this sequel, that won’t be repeating itself. It’ll be one of the top movies of the year – the only question is how big it can get. I think it can easily double the box office of the original, but it probably needs to triple it to have a shot at the crown – and that might be a bridge too far.

3. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

This might be the biggest wild-card of the year. If everything goes right, this could be an iconic four-quadrant blockbuster a la Top Gun: Maverick. On the other hand, if Harrison Ford shows his age and the Crystal Skull legacy drags the franchise down, it could disappoint. I’m splitting the difference and assuming that the good reception for the climatic-looking trailer means that Harrison Ford will take Indy out on top. We only have a short teaser trailer so far, but this looks like a true event movie.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3

Speaking of finales, this loooooooong-awaited James Gunn conclusion has been a long time coming, with the director being fired and rehired after a cast revolt. That likely means this is the finale for the entire cast of characters, and I’m expecting anticipation to be high. A recent Disney Plus special put the cast back in the focus, and the trailers have gotten a wildly positive response. This is definitely going to be the year’s champion among MCU movies, and most people have it as the odds-on favorite to win the year. I think it has a good chance, but I also think it has a likely ceiling one movie doesn’t.

1. The Super Mario Bros. Movie

If you want to talk about pent-up demand, look no further than this Illumination movie. Video game adaptations are only starting to get their moment in the sun, with two kid-friendly Sonic movies, an Uncharted adaptation that was a well-regarded pulp adventure, and an HBO adaptation for The Last of Us that treats the source material with deathly seriousness. But none of them have embraced the video game roots more than this all-ages adventure, which – some quibbles about Chris Pratt’s voice aside – has been met with overwhelming applause. I’m expecting it to hit equally hard with kids who love the colorful animation and humor, and their dads who grew up with Mario, Luigi, and Bowser. The box office will be massive, and I would be surprised if we didn’t a host of Nintendoverse announcements from Illumination immediately. The next big franchise is here, and I think it’ll start on top.

What do you think will dominate the year? Feel free to give your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook/Twitter.

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