Mean Girls. Argylle. Madame Web. Why are movies so bad right now?

2023 was an unusually great year for movies, with each month of the year offering something new and exciting in virtually every genre from almost every distributor. From the slick dance moves of the killer robot M3GAN to the modern Greek tragedy in neon-colored spandex that was The Iron Claw, last year was a great time to be a movie fan.
It’s only mid-February right now, and already that seems like a lifetime ago. Why are movies in 2024 so bad right now? There’s the usual litany of excuses: January and February have always been a dumping ground for movies; the Super Bowl takes eyeballs away from the movie theaters, so studios are less inclined to release quality movies; and the rise of streaming has caused the threshold for what constitutes a good movie to drop.
But that doesn’t fully explain why this particular time has been plagued with so many terrible, uninspired movies at both the multiplex and at home. Why did the quality of films coming out right now plunge so low and so fast? More importantly, what effect does this have on an audience that is already apathetic about movies and is increasingly willing to find other methods like gaming, social media, or even AI to entertain themselves?
The 2024 winter movie slate is awful
Elevation Pictures
Remember last year when the first weekend of 2023 witnessed the release of one of the most talked-about movies of late 2022? Yes, I’m talking about M3GAN, and while it’s no classic, it generated enough hype, not to mention money at the box office, to start the year off with a kick. Every subsequent weekend had a movie that had some appeal: the superb, creepy-vibes horror movie Skinamarink on January 13, the underrated thriller Missing on January 20, the strikingly original sci-fi film Infinity Pool on January 27, the popcorn pleasures of Knock at the Cabin on February 3, and the climax (pun intended) to the Magic Mike trilogy, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, on February 10. It was only on February 17 that 2023 saw its first huge misfire, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and even that was tempered with the simultaneous releases of the art house hits Pacification, Of an Age, and Return to Seoul.
Apple TV+
Compare that lineup with 2024’s and you’re bound to get depressed: a Mean Girls musical, drained of all the charm of its cinematic and stage predecessors, that was originally scheduled for streaming and pushed into theaters; a Jason Statham action movie, The Beekeeper, that wishes it was as insanely fun as the Crank movies; something called The Book of Clarence, which vanished so fast I’m not sure it’s actually real; ditto for I.S.S.; the awful indie movies Miller’s Girl and Founder’s Day; and the twin over-produced disasters of early February, Argylle and Madame Web.
The combination of poor-quality movies and an unimaginative lineup that played it too safe resulted in a pileup of mediocrity early this year that seemed endless. 2024 has been one disappointment after another, with few films, either from the major studios or from independent companies, really connecting with critics or audiences. And things weren’t so great on the streaming front, either.
Even movies on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime stink
Chris Harris / Netflix
Good Grief. Lift. Role Play. Self Reliance. The Kitchen. These movies encompass wildly different genres (drama, action, rom-com, surrealist comedy, and futuristic sci-fi, respectively) and showcase a diverse range of actors from Dan Levy to Kevin Hart to Jake Johnson, but they all have one thing in common: they stink. At least, that’s what the critics think, as they each received middling to downright vicious reviews, and the audience response to each has been apathetic at best.
Why is streaming also stumbling at the same time as theatrical movies? One answer could be the Academy Awards. Streamers, like their studio brethren, are holding back their quality movies for the fall to qualify for the Oscars. Even Society of the Snow, which debuted on Netflix on January 4, 2024, technically is a 2023 release, as Netflix gave it a limited theatrical run in December 2023.
But not every movie needs to be Oscar-worthy to be enjoyable, and something like Lift, which has a good premise (thieves have to steal gold on a place in mid-air), a game cast (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jean Reno, and Vincent D’Onofrio), and a talented director (F. Gary Gray, who made the similar but much better The Italian Job in 2003), should’ve worked.
It didn’t, and neither did many of the other original streaming movies that have been released so far. This piling up of mediocrity, at both the movie theaters and at home, has made the prospect of seeing a movie, any movie, filled with dread. How much more disappointment can one person take?
TV is offering bigger and better alternatives than ever before
Michele K. Short / HBO
A common observation/complaint in the Peak TV era is that TV shows are now better, or at least more satisfying, than movies. And while I’ve always viewed that way of thinking as too general and sweeping, I’m afraid it’s true now. With shows like True Detective: Night Country on HBO and Masters of the Air on Apple TV+, who wants to go to the movies anymore? Both shows couldn’t be more different yet they consistently offer the same things — star performances, big budgets that actually service the plot, and compelling narratives — that movies used to have on a regular, week-to-week basis.
Moreover, some of the same stars and genres that used to feature exclusively in movies are now more likely to be seen and done properly in television. A Jodie Foster thriller with horror overtones was a winter hit in February 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs; in 2024, it’s HBO’s most-watched show. Masters of the Air could’ve easily come out in the summer of 1999 on the heels of similar World War II pictures like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line; instead, it’s one of streaming television’s most expensive and impressive productions ever.
Apple TV+
Streaming television isn’t exactly stealing these performers and types of stories away from movies in so much as it’s offering a more attractive method of storytelling, longer runtimes, and less pressure to appeal to a mass audience. Yet I have no doubt had these properties been developed as movies, they would’ve been big hits, even in January and February, and would’ve balanced out the junk that has piled up and out in theaters in 2024.
Winter moviegoing doesn’t need to be so bleak
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it usually isn’t; the excellent movie slate in early 2023 wasn’t an exception but rather a fairly typical theatrical programming schedule. Just look at any pre-pandemic year and you’ll find at least a few movies worth watching: 2019 (Cold Pursuit, Glass, The Duke of Burgundy); 2018 (Paddington 2, The Commuter, Black Panther); 2012 (The Gray, Chronicles, The Secret World of Arrietty); and on and on. Go back further and you’ll find groundbreaking movies like the aforementioned Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver, and Cabaret had dead-in-the-winter release dates.
Despite the common perception that this time of the year is a dumping ground for bad films, history tells us a different story: that the months of January and February can hold secret treasures like the Paddington films, guilty pleasures like any Liam Neeson action film, and Oscar-winning classics right out of the gate like Cabaret. For some reason, the movie industry forgot its history in 2024, and the result is a depressed moviegoing audience that, just last weekend, gave the industry its worst Super Bowl weekend at the box office ever.
Why does this matter?
Warner Bros.
It’s no secret that the theatrical industry has been undergoing hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming has experienced a few bumps of its own lately, too, with declining subscribers and depressed stocks for most of the conglomerates that own them. To have movies in both theaters and at home fail so consistently and across almost every genre threatens to disincentivize an increasingly fractured audience that is already too distracted by TikTok or video games further. When you have nothing good to offer and offer it non-stop, why should anyone come back?
My hope is that these last seven weeks have been just an outlier; after all, the first two months of 2016 gave us Norm of the North and Dirty Grandpa. (It also was around this time that Deadpool was released, but I digress.) There are bound to be peaks and valleys in the entertainment business, and the next few weeks offer some hope with the B-movie kitsch of Drive-Away Dolls and the sci-fi spectacle of Dune: Part Two.
But movies are still in a vulnerable state right now, and nearly two months of bad films can be enough to push people away for good. Peak TV may be over, but we’re still getting such big-budget epics like Shōgun on FX/Hulu or thrillers like Ripley on Netflix. Movies can still offer a home for stories like those (and did in 1999 with the masterful The Talented Mr. Ripley), and can be released in January and February to critical acclaim and big box office. If it worked before and has worked for decades, then it can work again.

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