Movies returned in a big way in 2021 — here are the winners and losers

Everett Collection (3) / Warner Bros. (1)
A Quiet Place Part II, Godzilla vs. Kong, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-man: No Way Home. (Photo: Everett Collection (3) / Warner Bros. (1))

With dozens of high-profile releases ready to roll after being delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines widely available and at least a segment of moviegoers primed to return to the cineplex (some demographics more excited than others), the movie business attempted a Hollywood comeback in 2021.

Now, as the days tick down on another calendar year, we can ask the billion-dollar question: Did the movie business bounce back after lockdowns crippled the exhibition industry a year ago? The answer is a resounding “sort of." There were legitimate blockbusters but there were also lots of caveats. After all, how do you judge the performance of high-profile releases from Warner Bros. or Disney when those titles are simultaneously released, respectively, on HBO Max and Disney+ home-streaming services?

There's no arguing the utter domination of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which swung above all expectations — pandemic or not — with a staggering $600 million worldwide opening. But more on that later.

Overall, it was a year defined by highs (superhero movies continuing to dominate) and lows (musicals getting muted no matter how good they are), bad news (the permanent closures of the West Coast’s much-loved Arclight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres chains) and good (the recent announcement that the Arclight’s crown jewel, Sunset Boulevard's landmark Cinerama Dome, will be reopening).

“This has been an incredible year for movie theaters and one of the most important in its history in the wake of a disruptive 2020 that tested the allure of the movie theater to the limit,” says Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

Here are the major lessons we learned from the 2021 box office.

AMC movie theater in Times Square
View of AMC movie theater in Times Square on Aug. 10, 2021. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images) (Pacific Press via Getty Images)

Family fare suffered from the start.

The comeback plot stumbled out of the gate as a pair of family-minded releases, Warner Bros.’ Tom and Jerry ($45 million) and Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon ($54 million) only attracted small audiences to theaters (while concurrently racking up views on their respective streamers) in late February and early March. That would begin a trend in underperforming kid-friendly films, which could almost certainly be traced to the fact that coronavirus vaccines were not available for children under 12 until the fall.

While Disney’s Jungle Cruise (July 30) and Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Nov. 19) performed admirably with $116 million and $117 million, respectively, they’ve been the only family-ish movies (both were rated PG-13) to make nine figures at the U.S. box office so far this year. Disney’s animated musical Encanto (Nov. 24) continues to climb the charts with $84 million, and could get a holiday boost to cross that threshold, while Universal’s star-studded Sing 2 (Dec. 24) is still on the way.

But otherwise there were a handful of underperforming kid flicks, including Space Jam: A New Legacy (July 16) with $67 million, The Boss Baby: Family Business (July 2) with $57 million, The Addams Family 2 (Oct. 1) with $56 million and Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (June 11) with $40 million — all sequels that (understandably) grossed considerably less than their predecessors.

Monsters and aliens did some damage.

'A Quiet Place Part II' (Paramount)
A Quiet Place Part II (Photo: Paramount)

While 2021’s release calendar was slow to rev up, it was a showdown between two classic movie monsters that made the first major impact. Warners’s Godzilla vs. Kong (March 31) smashed all previous pandemic records, opening with a surprisingly hefty $48 million the last weekend of March on its way to exceeding expectations with a total U.S. haul of $100 million (and $467 million worldwide) — even more impressive considering the kaiju duo were also brawling it out on HBO Max.

Fast-forward to Memorial Day weekend, and Paramount’s blind extraterrestrials vs. Emily Blunt and family thriller A Quiet Place Part II kicked off a promising summer movie season en route to total U.S. grosses of $160 million. Sure, A Quiet Place (Part I), also directed by John Krasinski, scored $188 million three years earlier. But with the shifting goalposts of a pandemic-battered business, Part II was not only a blockbuster, its success indicated that hits were possible again.

They weren’t the only genre wins of the year. Universal’s Halloween Kills (Oct. 15) scared up $92 million in the U.S. despite underwhelming reviews. However, other horror films didn’t kill as well. There was The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (June 4) with $65 million, Candyman (Aug. 27) with $61 million, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old (July 23) with $48 million — which spoiled the filmmaker’s recent hot streak — and the Saw spinoff Spiral (May 14), which netted only $23 million.

It was an especially bad year for musicals and adult dramas.

The year was hyped for its myriad high-profile Broadway adaptations: Warners’s In the Heights (June 11), Universal’s Dear Evan Hansen (Sept. 24), 20th Century Studios’s West Side Story (Dec. 10) and Netflix’s Tick, Tick… Boom! (Nov. 12). Early response to In the Heights was through the roof, but the film grossed a disappointing $29 million, perhaps dinged by criticism for its lack of Afro-Latinx representation. Evan Hansen limped through putrid reviews to $15 million. Not even the combination of Steven Spielberg and ecstatic reviews could save West Side Story from a tragic start, as it made only $18 million its opening weekend, or 1/14th of Spider-Man’s haul. And who knows how well Tick, Tick… Boom! has performed on Netflix, which doesn’t release metrics.

Other adult-oriented and prestige films also struggled. Ridley Scott's House of Gucci has fared modestly so far with $45 million since Nov. 24. But the filmmaker's other 2021 release, the $100 million Matt Damon-Ben Affleck reunion/historical drama The Last Duel (Oct. 15) bombed for 20th Century Studios, raking in only a 10th of its budget at the U.S. box office, for which Scott promptly blamed… millennials and their cellphones? The Aretha Franklin biopic Respect (Aug. 13, $24 million), the Will Smith-starring Oscar contender King Richard (Nov. 19, $14 million) and the MAGA Matt Damon drama Stillwater (July 30, $14 million) also failed to find audiences.

“Films aimed at more mature moviegoers have had a tougher time gaining traction with this more reluctant, but important demographic,” Dergarabedian says, suggesting that older viewers were hesitant to return to theaters in large numbers.

(Marvel) Superhero movies still rule.

'Spider-Man: No Way Home' (Sony)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (Photo: Sony)

Nothing says “back to normal” like five of the six top-grossing movies of the year being comic book adaptations (as opposed to 2020, when the only two movies to gross the $100 million mark stateside were the pre-pandemic releases Bad Boys 4 Life and Sonic the Hedgehog).

Sony-Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (Dec. 17) became 2021’s instant champion upon release last weekend with $260 million in the U.S. That eclipsed Disney-Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Sep. 3, $224 million), Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Oct. 1, $212 million), Disney-Marvel’s Black Widow (July 9, $183 million) and the one non-comic movie in the top five, F9: The Fast Saga (June 25, $173 million). (Disney-Marvel’s Eternals is currently sixth with $163 million.) Only James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (Aug. 6) disappointed, dying fairly quickly with only $55 million.

The fact that superhero movies generally proved so dominant could be either good or bad news, depending on your perspective. On one hand, the genre is keeping movie theaters afloat, especially the freshly arrived, record-breaking sensation No Way Home. On the other, their dominance only furthers the hypothesis of critics who envision a day when movie marquees will feature nothing but superhero movies (or at least $200 million IP tentpoles, which would also include Top 10 finishers this year like F9 and Daniel Craig’s James Bond swan song No Time to Die.)

“While it’s indisputably a big win for theatrical and the box office recovery, it also underscores that the massive divide between big, splashy event pics and everything else, a gap that was exacerbated by COVID-19,” notes The Hollywood Reporter's Pamela McClintock.

Some of the best news to glean from 2021’s box office receipts, however, is that grosses are trending upward. As of this week, seven of the year’s top 10-earning films were released in September or beyond, with potential hits The Matrix Resurrections and Sing 2 still set to open Christmas weekend.

Hollywood’s knight in red-and-blue Spandex, Spider-Man, has already generated $600 million globally and, per Dergarabedian, “has a real shot of hitting $1 billion worldwide — if Omicron doesn't get in the way, particularly in the international territories that will be vital to the achievement of this lofty goal.

“What we have learned is that the movie theater experience is irreplaceable and no matter the many challenges thrown its way over the years has always bounced back and thrived.”

If the movies are back, then we might have to give Peter Parker a new alias: The Comeback Kid.