The highly-anticipated, theater-exclusive release of Spider-Man: No Way Home in December of 2021 did not disappoint. After two years of theater uncertainty, box office flops, vague streaming statistics, and a slew of tent pole delays, No Way Home delivered one of the most impressive box office performances in history. The allure of three Spider-Men, played by Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire, brought the most people back to the theaters since 2019's Avengers: Endgame.
Nearing $2 billion at the global box office, director Jon Watts' threequel delivered the highest-grossing film of 2021 and the third most successful film in North America of all time. Domestically, it only trails Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and Avengers: Endgame, the two highest-grossing films of all time.
All of this success happened despite China (which became the largest box office in the world during 2020) not releasing the film and continuous COVID concerns including an Omicron variant that peaked a month after the film's release.
In a year when Warner Bros. released all of their films in theaters and on HBO Max (despite overwhelming push back from creators) and theater-only windows being reduced to 45 days by Disney, Universal, and Paramount, this joint production between Sony and Disney was given the "old school" theater treatment. No Way Home will play in theaters until the people stop coming to see it.
Unfortunately for theater-freaks, No Way Home is a rare breed. Here's what this could mean going forward for the film industry and how movies are distributed.
Redefining a Hollywood Hit
During the past decade, there has been a shift in what movies studios consider cash cows. Since 2012, five of the ten top performers from their respective year have been a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, Disney? They're the key to success?
No, but they understand what puts audience members in their seats. Connected, interactive, high-flying, star-studded films with a perfectly balanced PG-13 rating.
Marvel Studios' cinematic universe has changed the game in so many ways since it began in 2008 and especially after the release of 2012's The Avengers. Instead of deciding to see a Hulk or Thor movie because you liked their toys growing up, it became an assignment to see Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy in order to keep up with the overarching story that would come together in four Avengers films over the course of seven years.
Sequels have historically been a sign of a studio wanting to profit off of its predecessor's success. The game-changing element of the MCU is that Spider-Man is a sequel to Captain America and Captain America is a sequel to Iron Man, etc. No other studio in the history of Hollywood has created anything close to 27 interconnected movies all happening in one cohesive universe.
This new era of filmmaking and fandom came to a head in 2019 when Avengers: Endgame (temporarily) set the record for highest-grossing film of all time at the worldwide box office.
Now over two years later, the world has been living through a pandemic and No Way Home has solidified the future of cinema.
Dear Hollywood Studios, Do You Want Success? Create an Event.
Similar to Endgame, Tom Holland's third Spider-Man movie benefited by being a project that was "years in the making." That became obvious with villains Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Electro being used in marketing. Those characters were introduced in three other Spider-Man films outside of the MCU in 2002, 2004, and 2014, respectively.
This wasn't just the end of a trilogy within the ever-growing MCU, but the culmination of 19 years with Spidey on the big screen. That's what sells; three generations of live-action Spider-Man culminating in one film.
Hollywood knows this. Look at Jurassic World: Dominion, for example. The end of a trilogy, now being marketed as the end of all the Jurassic films. Original cast members Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern are all set to reprise their characters introduced almost three decades ago in Jurassic Park.
The Flash, set to release in late 2022, is also trying to draw audiences in with blasts from the past. Not only will Michael Keaton appear, but he is set to return in the cape and cowl for yet another multiversal adventure.
Speaking of the multiverse, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness is bringing Patrick Stewart's Professor X into the MCU. Stewart was originally introduced as Charles Xavier in 20th Century Fox's X-Men 22 years ago. Benedict Cumberbatch's sequel film is flooded with rumors, including Tobey Maguire reuniting with director Sam Raimi, Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool making his MCU debut, and the return of a new Wolverine.
Studios have caught onto this formula heading into the 2020s of blockbuster movie-making. Even outside of movies, the return of Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen has fans starving to see Obi-Wan Kenobi begin streaming on Disney+ in late May.
Infinity War and Endgame director Joe Russo recently commented on this trend, relating it to the "corporate agenda." Russo said that "it's their job to turn the money printer on. It's the creative's job to say, 'Well shit, I don't know if I want to watch that.'"
Walt Disney, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Sony, and all other media corporations want to create content that will draw in the most money. For now, global event films featuring returning characters and world-ending stakes is currently the recipe.
Spider-Man Revives the Box Office
When COVID-19 spread around the world in 2020, movie theaters quickly became even more empty. In 2019, the total global box office brought in a record $38.8B. In 2020, that number dropped 79.5% to 7.9B.
For years, during the rise of Netflix, Amazon, and home theater set-ups becoming less expensive, theaters were already becoming less relevant amongst consumers. According to Gallup, from 2001 to 2007, the U.S. population saw roughly 4.8 movies in a theater per year and only 32% said they didn't go to a theater at all. In 2021, the average dropped to 1.4 movies in a theater and 61% of Americans did not visit a theater.
On average, everyone in the U.S. saw fewer than two films last year. So what did they see? Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The film that saw the return of Peter 2 (Tobey Maguire) and Peter 3 (Andrew Garfield) continues to chip away at the box office. No Way Home is now the 3rd highest-grossing movie ever to open in North America. When only 4 out of 10 people in 2021 went out to a theater.
It is also nearing $2 billion globally, without a release in China: the largest box office in the world. In 2019, Spider-Man: Far From Home made nearly $200M in China. Nevertheless, this film was truly an outlier of 2021. Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings had the second highest-grossing performance at the domestic box office, earning $224.5M. No Way Home made $260M in North America... during its opening weekend.
This was the first movie in nearly two years that doesn't deserve an asterisk next to it because it opened during a pandemic. It's hard to imagine that this film would've done much better sans a global pandemic. Audiences flooded theaters, embraced the collective experience, and reignited many love for having a shared cinematic experience.
In many ways, 2021 taught us a lot about the future of movies. Even if people feel safe, they're less interested in going out to a theater in order to watch a film. Many of the general populous would rather click on to one of their streaming services to see the latest flick. Large, 4k TVs are becoming more affordable and studios will continue to promote direct-to-consumer films like everything released on Netflix, Disney continuing to release its latest Pixar films exclusively on Disney+, and Warner Bros. is currently in production on Batgirl, a big budget comic book movie headed directly to HBO Max.
However, upcoming 2022 films like The Batman, Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness, Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion, Black Adam, Aquaman, and The Flash all have the potential for hauls at the box office. Jon Watts' No Way Home proved that and gave studio executives confidence in releasing their big-budget, star-driven, event films to theaters after a year of uncertainty.
Companies will continue to grow their direct-to-consumer libraries in an attempt to compete in the Streaming Wars, but the theaters are not dead. Changed forever post-pandemic? Yes. Incapable of generating large profits for studios? Absolutely not.