The 2021 movie lineup featured a plethora of well–reviewed theater–only movies such as West Side Story, The Last Duel, and Nightmare Alley. But while all of these films might have superb visuals, immersive production, and gripping musical scores, they also share one major similarity: they're all box office bombs. 

Despite an ongoing pandemic, 2021 showed that it was still possible to perform on par with pre–pandemic box office earnings. Spider–Man: No Way Home, which premiered in December 2021, is currently the biggest movie since Avengers: Endgame, which came out in 2019. With over $1.5 billion and little competition in the coming months, Tom Holland’s Spider–Man will likely gross over $2 billion and cement itself as one of the highest–grossing films of all time. While one could argue that Spider-Man: No Way Home is an anomaly among theater–only pandemic movies, it’s alsothe clearest example of moviegoing’s fate: capes and superpowers. 

The domestic box office in 2021 was still a 61% drop from 2019 with $4.4 billion in revenue, and those profits are mostly due to the success of comic book and franchise films. The top domestic box office earners in 2021 were all comic book movies, with Spider–Man: No Way Home leading the charge with over $600 million, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in second with around $224 million, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage in third with $212 million. 

Besides comic book movies, the 2021 domestic box office relied on franchise films like Daniel Craig’s final James Bond installment No Time to Die ($160 million), A Quiet Place Part II ($160 million), and F9: The Fast Saga ($173 million). The only original, non–IP film that achieved comparable success was Ryan Reynolds’ Free Guy, which raked in $121 million domestically.  While each of these films were exclusive to theaters and relatively successful in 2021, their earnings were still much lower than previous years, with the exception of Spider–Man. 

Globally, many markets are bouncing back stronger than the North American box office. For the second year in a row, China ended 2021 as the world’s largest theatrical market ($7.3 billion), down only 26% from 2019. Only 20 United States films were allowed to be released in China last year, which did not include Spider–Man, Shang–Chi, or Black Widow. In the future, China will be a dominant force in deciding how and what films Hollywood decides to make in order to get a Chinese release date and make serious money. 

Gone are the days when a star could propel a movie to monumental success in theaters. While Holland is the lead of the world’s biggest movie, it's the popularity of his Spider–Man character, not his own star power, that is getting people to theaters. Look no further than to the rest of Holland’s poorly reviewed 2021 lineup, Cherry and Chaos Walking, the latter of which cost around $100 million and only made $26.9 million worldwide. 

As a fan of awards contenders and independent movies such as 2021’s Spencer and Licorice Pizza, it’s difficult to see that the future of moviegoing will strictly be comic book and franchise movies, which have create an “event” experience for their fans. This “event” experience is predicated on audience anticipation, nostalgia, direct connections between past films, and cameos that serve primarily as fan service. Many successful, award–winning films like Netflix’s Don’t Look Up, which—as of January 2021—is Netflix’s second most–watched film of all time, are thriving on streaming platforms. Either films directed by indie darlings or revered directors will no longer be made, or these films will just be directed to streaming services with lower budgets. It’s ironic that Steven Spielberg, the creator of modern blockbusters like Jaws, has directed one of the year’s most commercially unsuccessful films—West Side Story—which earned $53 million on a $100 million budget, with overall costs totalling $300 million.

If comic book movies continue to be the only strong performers at the box office, the diversity of movie genres and stories will be severely diminished. We could be looking at a future where theaters are only screening movies that are carbon copies of the same, general comic book storyline: the lead faces menacing dangers, uses his powers triumphantly, and ends the movie as a hero with more knowledge and higher stakes for future installments. 

It's the film industry's responsibility to adapt and evolve, which would require following the art instead of the money, at least once in a while. The 2021 box office proved that, even with an ongoing pandemic, theaters are still operating and premiering successful films. Hollywood's marketing power plays a significant role whether those films are successful at all—although whether they'll stray from whatever yields the highest profit margins remains to be seen. In the meantime, drop by your local arthouse cinema (there are quite a few in Philly) to support the movies that get harder and harder to make if they aren't filling seats.