The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected the box office, to the point where many doubted it would ever return to the levels achieved pre-2020. However, 2023 has proven that audiences are ready to return to the movie theater. Yes, the movies are back, with the domestic box office exploding thanks to juggernauts like The Super Mario Bros. Movie and the Barbenheimer phenomenon.
We are halfway through 2023, and most of the year’s biggest releases have already come out. Bar a few promising films like the usual Marvel and DC fare, Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi blockbuster Dune: Part Two, and (possibly) Paul King’s holiday musical Wonka, chances are the films currently in the domestic Top 10 are probably the same ones we’ll see at the end of the year. So what are the films that dominated the year’s domestic box office? From long-running franchises to new and promising IPs and even a few auteur efforts, the most popular films of 2023 are a healthy mix of everything.
Note: U.S. domestic box office grosses come via Box Office Mojo on August 8. The list only includes films released in 2023.
10. Sound of Freedom ($164 million)
There’s no bigger surprise at the box office this year than Sound of Freedom. Released by neophyte distributor Angel Studios, Sound of Freedom stars Jim Caviezel as Tim Ballard, a former special agent for Homeland Security Investigations who embarks on a mission to find a young girl abducted by child traffickers in the Colombian jungle. The film is based on the true story of Ballard and the creation of the anti-sex-trafficking organization known as Operation Underground Railroad.
How did this movie beat the likes of Tom Cruise, Transformers, and the latest Fast and Furious movie? Well, the studio employed a controversial “pay it forward” tactic where it encouraged large groups, primarily faith-based groups, to purchase additional tickets and make them available to use for other people free of charge. Even if those “free” tickets aren’t redeemed, they still count as a purchase, which could explain why this $14.5 million film could beat the likes of Vin Diesel and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.
Sound of Freedom is playing in theaters.
9. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny ($170.7 million)
Disney proved the fifth time wasn’t the charm with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. In this latest (and last) entry in the long-running adventure series, Indy’s a much older man who is trying to adjust to the changing times in 1969. But when some of his old Nazi foes reemerge, Indiana Jones will once again step up to save the world and reunite with some old friends along the way.
Dial of Destiny isn’t bad like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, but its bloated $300 million budget isn’t really reflected on the screen, so it never had a chance to properly succeed at the box office and become the grand finale everyone involved wanted it to be. Action movies with grumpy 80-year old leads aren’t that much in demand these days, and Dial of Destiny‘s blah box office guarantees Harrison Ford will never have to pick up that iconic fedora hat and whip ever again.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is now playing in theaters.
8. John Wick: Chapter 4 ($187.1 million)
I’m running out of adjectives to describe the awesomeness of John Wick: Chapter 4. Franchises should not be improving with their fourth installment, but that’s the case in Chapter 4, where John (The Matrix’s Keanu Reeves) is hell-bent on bringing the High Table to its knees, one bullet at a time. Thanks to a proposal from Winston (Deadwood’s Ian McShane), John sees an opportunity to get out of the criminal underworld.
If he defeats the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (It’s Bill Skarsgård), a senior member of the High Table, in a duel, then John will earn his freedom. Getting to the duel may prove quite difficult as hundreds of assassins try to take out John and earn the large bounty that comes with it. John Wick: Chapter 4 is an achievement in action filmmaking and should be viewed on the biggest screen possible.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is now available digitally and on demand.
7. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania ($214.5 million)
It would not be a list about the box office without some Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. The biggest MCU film released in 2023 is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the third film in the Ant-Man trilogy. The stakes have been raised in Quantumania as Scott Lang (The Shrink Next Door’s Paul Rudd), Hope van Dyne (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly), and company are transported to the Quantum Realm. In the minuscule dimension, Scott meets Kang the Conqueror (Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors), a time-traveling supervillain positioned as the next Thanos-type villain for Marvel moving forward.
As the first film in Phase 5 of the MCU, Quantumania teases Marvel’s Multiverse Saga’s one overarching story, similar to the Infinity Saga. Despite grossing over $200 million domestically, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has underperformed at the box office and received the lowest CinemaScore in the MCU’s history. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 restored the Marvel brand with its successful release in May, so maybe Quantumania was just a blemish on an otherwise flawless cinematic record.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is now available on Disney+.
6. Oppenheimer ($228.9 million)
Christopher Nolan returns to the big screen after a two-year absence with his biographical masterpiece Oppenheimer. Nolan’s longtime collaborator Cillian Murphy takes on the titular role — his first time leading part of the director’s films — alongside a large ensemble that includes Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Robert Downey Jr. The plot follows Oppenheimer’s life, focusing on his involvement with the Manhattan Project and the 1954 security hearing that resulted in the revocation of his security clearance.
Oppenheimer might be Christopher Nolan’s best film to date. The film has received universal acclaim from critics and audiences, with many believing it will finally take Nolan to the Dolby Theater’s stage. Impressively, the film has also been a massive commercial success, grossing $228 million at the domestic box office so far. With $300 million in sight and no real competition on the horizon, who knows how far Oppenheimer will go? Only time will tell, but things look promising for the lauded biopic.
Oppenheimer is now in theaters.
5. The Little Mermaid ($297.1 million)
Academy Award nominee Rob Marshall ventured under the sea to bring the timeless story of The Little Mermaid to live action. Halle Bailey stars as Ariel, an intrepid mermaid fascinated by the human world. After saving a handsome prince from drowning and becoming infatuated with him, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula, the sea witch, receiving a pair of human legs in exchange for her beautiful voice. Jonah Hauer-King, Javier Bardem, and Melissa McCarthy also star.
The Little Mermaid faced unfair scrutiny due to Bailey’s casting. However, the film rallied at the box office, grossing $297 million domestically and $269 internationally for a total of $566 million worldwide. The film received mostly positive reviews, particularly for Bailey’s star-making performance. However, The Little Mermaid was not the smashing success many hoped it would be, suggesting that Disney’s live-action adaptations might have finally overstayed their welcome with audiences.
The Little Mermaid is now available digitally and on demand.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 ($358.9 million)
James Gunn’s Marvel swan song dazzled critics and audiences alike. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 sees the return of everyone’s favorite a-holes, who must face the deranged and cruel High Evolutionary while on a quest to save Rocket’s life. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, and Sean Gunn reprise their roles as the titular team, joined by Will Poulter as Adam Warlock and Chukwudi Iwuji as the High Evolutionary.
Just when it seemed the MCU’s glory days were behind it, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 arrived to prove there’s still life in the Marvel machine. The film received near-universal praise from critics and was a certified box office success, grossing $845 million worldwide and ending Gunn’s time at Marvel on a high note. The film is a bittersweet and surprisingly dark send-off for the Guardians that features the best Marvel villain since Thanos and an emotional, yet uplifting message that confirms there’s more to comic book movies than loud explosions and men in spandex.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now streaming on Disney+.
3. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse ($380 million)
The long-awaited sequel to the 2018 Oscar-winning animated triumph Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse features the return of the beloved Miles Morales. The film follows Miles as he meets the Spider-Society, led by Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099, and comes into conflict with them and a new villain, the Spot. The voice cast includes Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, and Oscar Isaac.
Praised for its originality, humor, heart, and stunning animation, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse did what most sequels fail to do: it surpassed its predecessor. The film also outperformed the first one, nearly duplicating its international gross while earning $683 million worldwide — more than half of which came from the domestic box office. A third film, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, has already been announced, but was recently delayed due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA/WGA strikes.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now available digitally and on demand.
2. Barbie ($459.3 million)
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is undoubtedly the biggest film of 2023. Oscar nominees Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling star in the movie, based on Mattel’s revered doll, playing Barbie and her perennial and underappreciated companion, Ken. The plot centers on Stereotypical Barbie, whose peaceful life in Barbieland is disrupted by a sudden existential crisis. Accompanied by Ken, Barbie ventures into the real world to find the source of her pain.
Barbie has defied every expectation, grossing over a billion internationally and receiving glowing reviews. The film handles potentially thorny subjects with delicacy and humor, proving that films can have a strong political angle and still appeal to worldwide audiences. Barbie has its sights on The Super Mario Bros. Movie‘s $574 million domestic and $779 internationally — can the spirited doll climb her way to the top? Things are looking good, and with no competition in sight, Mario might be flattened by Barbie’s pink heel.
Barbie is now in theaters.
1. The Super Mario Bros. Movie ($574.1 million)
“It’s-a me, Mario!” Fewer words bring such joy across generations as those uttered by everyone’s favorite Koopa-stomping, inter-dimensional traveling Italian plumber. And judging from its first three weeks of release, audiences couldn’t get enough of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, even if the critical reception has been lukewarm at best.
After an initial outcry over the casting of the non-Italian Chris Pratt for the very Italian role of Mario, fans seem to have gotten in line to fall in love with every trailer, clip, and image that has been released so far. Aside from Pratt, the vocal cast is stellar, with Charlie Day as Luigi, Jack Black as Bowser, The Menu‘s Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach, and Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong. The movie is fan service in the best possible way, with enough Rainbow Roads, Thwomps, and Warp Zones to satisfy nostalgic older fans and young kids alike. In a crowded animated landscape filled with Pusses in Boots and little mischievous Minions, The Super Mario Bros. Movie stands out as 2023’s biggest blockbuster domestically and worldwide.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now available on Peacock.