It’s been a few days since I wrote my last dispatch, thanks to a national holiday that some families regard as sacred, others observe in their own secular fashion, and still others decline to celebrate at all. I refer, of course, to the release date of a new superhero movie. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 debuted, in theaters and on HBO Max, on Christmas Day. The mostly lukewarm critical reviews, and the real-time audience reaction it received, gave us a glimpse of what word-of-mouth in the post-movie-theater age might (please Lord, make that “might,” not “will”) look like. The response was immediate and, for the most part—at least judging by my own blistering social media feeds over the weekend—negative.
What were the actual audience numbers? No one knows for sure, since viewing statistics are a well-kept secret on most of the major streaming platforms. HBO Max has said only that “nearly half” of their retail subscribers viewed the film on its first day of release. Did they watch all the way through? How many individual viewers got in on each $14.99 a month household subscription? What about users who are not “retail” subscribers but receive the service through their cable provider? We’ll never know! At any rate, Warner Bros. has already announced it’s moving forward with a sequel, as if its long-delayed tentpole had opened in theaters to a record-smashing weekend—when in fact the film’s physical box office receipts so far represent only a minuscule portion of its $200 million budget.
Maybe WW84 will wind up being what Christopher Nolan, the complexly written villain of our last round, grumbled that Tenet might wind up being for the same company: a loss leader, dangled as bait to squeeze what little theatrical income there was to get from a property that would mainly be used to drive new HBO Max subscriptions. The ethics of this dual strategy in the midst of a deadly global pandemic are, as established in the last round, debatable. But it seems that faced with that essential movie question of 2020—whither movie theaters in the post-COVID age?—one of Hollywood’s few surviving Golden Age studios has decided that … whither our new streaming service, that’s whither.
To crash-zoom in from that broad economic view to a narrow personal one, can I tell you my own WW84 story? I had been looking forward to seeing this movie all year—and if you consult my record on comic book blockbusters, you know how unusual that is. Back in 2017, the first Wonder Woman had startled me by making me cry in the multiplex. It was the rare comic book movie that made me understand the appeal of the genre, that primal fantasy it offers of identification with someone both inordinately powerful and unreservedly good. As Diana, Gal Gadot persuasively conveyed both of those attributes to an audience—women—that had been underserved in both departments our whole film-going lives.
I settled in to watch WW84 on Christmas Eve eve, after a long workweek fueled by the sleepless, anxious energy that can precede a holiday even in less generally anxious times than these. The viewing conditions were nicer than I’ve typically had in a year when many films built to be seen on the big screen were available only via glitchy, watermarked press preview links on an 11-inch laptop screen. HBO Max, perhaps realizing that its flagship property would already be losing a lot in the transition from theater to couch, made it available to press via a streaming channel I could watch on my highest-quality home screen. By 2020 standards, this was luxurious, as close as I got this year to the out-of-state field trip Alison described taking with colleagues to watch Tenet on a rented multiplex screen: a slightly off-kilter simulacrum of the way we used to see movies that somehow engendered both nostalgia and a sense of estrangement.
I doubled down on the comfort factor, actually getting under a blanket and opening a bottle of wine. By the time Chris Pine showed up, I was a glass and a half in, and I’m not going to swear that didn’t factor into how glad I was to see him return from the dead via a never-explained and in retrospect creepy body-switch conceit, but … I really liked the movie! Sure it was outlandishly plotted, morally oversimplified, and about 20 percent too long, like every other superhero blockbuster. But given the constraints of the genre, it had a lot going for it: two appealing leads with real chemistry, a charming comic performance from Kristen Wiig as Diana’s sidekick-turned-enemy, and Pedro Pascal as a scenery-chewing second villain (a big comic book movie needs two villains, the way a proper holiday feast needs two main courses) who gets both more motivation than your average world-destroyer and a rare shot at earthly redemption.
Feeling misty at the retrograde critical pleasure of watching a big, dumb, fun movie at around the same time everyone else would be seeing and talking about it, I proceeded to write a long and almost completely positive review. I let myself get sincere and maybe a bit gushy about my attachment to this absurd couple and their century-spanning romance. As I finished the last edit, I was even proud of my unaccustomed populism: Look at me over here, liking a comic book movie! Never let it be said every film on my Top 10 list is a harsh Eastern European documentary! (In fact this year there’s only one of those, Collective, which is a marvel, and which Justin also has on his list.)
I hopped offline for the holiday and got back on the day after Christmas to see that the pop-culture trifle I’d congratulated myself for unironically enjoying was the subject of equally unironic loathing from large swaths of the critical and popular audience. WW84 wasn’t just the disappointing second chapter in a big-budget franchise helmed by a promising female director; it was the repudiation of everything the first movie had stood for, an insult to its viewers’ intelligence, and an abomination unto the Lord. (I’m condensing a lot of tweets here. People seemed very upset about Wonder Woman 1984, is my point.)
Is this what all blockbuster releases are going to look like in the new day-and-date era: live-tweeted angry reactions, instant combative responses, people who haven’t seen the film yet chiming in to complain about spoilers, and the discourse about the whole movie done and dusted before opening weekend is out? Or was this movie’s reception inflected by the still-novel conditions of its opening, as if our cultural immune system isn’t yet ready to process an entire studio blockbuster seen in conditions of captivity? I’m not sure how to describe why, but there was something about that rapid wave of response that felt more deflating than the accustomed movie-opening rhythm, where hardcore fans wait in long lines to see blockbusters the first weekend while most of us put off forking over our $15 until word gets around that the movie is good. With WB’s new HBO Max setup, the forking over has already occurred in the form of a monthly subscription fee, so you might as well press play the instant a movie becomes available, then hop online and start complaining before the movie’s even over.
I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies worse than Wonder Woman 1984 open in theaters, get a mixed response from reviewers and a predictably rapturous reception from superfans, and still persist at or near the top of the box office for weeks while the rest of us figured out what we thought. But Jenkins’ new movie doesn’t need to be loved or hated, or even to sell a set number of tickets, in order to be considered a success. It just needs to have enough name-brand pull to justify its parent company churning out a sequel, so it can keep quietly draining our bank accounts with an automated subscription fee. However good or bad you feel about this latest installment in the DC/Marvel content multiverses, the bigger issue seems to be a movie economy that functions on that vampiric principle.
Whoops, there I go again, writing 1,500 words on Wonder Woman 1984 for the second time in a week. Please don’t take that to mean I want to spend our next round talking about it! Feel free to share your thoughts if you like, of course, but before that give me Soul, give me Promising Young Woman, give me Wild Mountain Thyme. I hope you’ll experience this third round as a loosening of inhibitions, a chance to process any emotions you might have left over from this volatile year. Which movies did you give a glowing review only to be exposed upon publishing as a credulous dork, as I was with WW84? And which ones did you excoriate or dismiss, only to find yourself still thinking about them days later?