Barbie and Oppenheimer made a great (and viral) double feature because the two movies seemed to have nothing in common. One was primarily targeted at women, the other at men. One had a bright pink, plastic aesthetic, the other alternated between muted grays, blacks, and browns and the bright orange of fire. One was a light fantasy comedy, the other was a harrowing true story about becoming death, destroyer of worlds.

But the thing these movies have in common is also the thing most movies that have done well at the box office this year have in common: they’re really good. If that sounds too simplistic, I’ll put it in more specific terms: they display a high level of craft rather than assuming audiences will simply show up for any old slop with a big budget and IP connection.

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Many of this year’s biggest hits are still sourced from pre-existing intellectual property, it’s true. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which is still the year’s highest earner, is based on an extremely popular video game franchise that has had a place in the childhoods of four generations of children. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 proved that the most successful movie franchise of all time still had some gas left in the tank, and last weekend’s big success story, Barbie, is based on an incredibly popular toy that has featured in even more generations of childhoods than Mario.

Indiana Jones Dial Of Destiny

But this year has also shown, in no uncertain terms, that a franchise connection isn’t enough. The incredibly expensive Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has barely made its budget back, The Little Mermaid vastly underperformed pre-COVID Disney live-action adaptations like The Lion King and Aladdin, and The Flash is the biggest box office bomb in Warner Bros.’ hundred year history. That isn’t even taking into account Fast X, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, all of which have underperformed or outright flopped despite name-brand recognition, too.

The thing that the movies that have been successful tend to have in common? Their directors, writers, actors, and the rest of the hardworking professionals behind the scenes are demonstrating a great deal of craft. The Barbieland of Greta Gerwig's movie is one big, wonderful set. It would have been easy to make a Barbie movie where, like Quantumania or Thor: Love and Thunder, the world was entirely created through sludgy CGI, but Gerwig opted instead to work with production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer to create a tactile world that looked like a big Barbie playset.

The promise of Barbie was, in part, that if you went to see it you'd see something that looked really cool. Oppenheimer made the same promise, as director Christopher Nolan talked about achieving the effect of the nuclear bomb detonating practically. Heading into the movie, I still wondered what he even meant by that, and what it would look and feel like in an IMAX auditorium.

Barbie smiles while looking in an empty pink mirror

This a promise that popcorn movies broke throughout the 2010s. The spectacle of ‘90s and ‘00s blockbusters like Titanic, The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Avatar gave way to the shared universes of the MCU and the DCEU. This was its own kind of spectacle for a while, but it was a meta-spectacle that only paid out if you showed up for every movie, not something inherent to the individual film that rewarded audiences each time they came to the theaters. Over time, the focus on the connective tissue became lazier with listless, tacked on cameos, and the effects got worse, too. It seems to have left general audiences wondering why they were even showing up anymore.

But when audiences go see John Wick: Chapter 4, it's because they expect to see incredible action. When they swing in for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, they expect a visual feast. When they dress up for Barbie, they expect wonderful color and massive sets. When they buy an expensive IMAX ticket for Oppenheimer, it's because they want to feel sound as loud as a Metallica concert and be wowed by images they haven't seen before. The movies have been asking audiences to ignore dodgy digital deaging, mucky CG backdrops, and awful compositing for too long. This year's big hits are offering something to see, not something to pretend you didn't notice.

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