WONDER WOMAN 1984 and the State of Critical Conversation

Disclaimer: This piece discusses plot elements of Wonder Woman 1984; while there are not significant spoilers, it may be best to watch the movie before reading. It is available now on HBO Max and at theaters.

In many ways, this Christmas holiday served as a sort of litmus test for the coming year (and potentially beyond) of cinematic culture. The release of two films from major studios that were originally planned for theatrical release were distributed through those companies over-the-top direct streaming platforms. One, Pixar’s newest release Soul, was met with largely praise and admiration, though it certainly had some who were expecting more. The other, Wonder Woman 1984, became a lightning rod of conversation on Film Twitter.

“Film Twitter” here refers to the specific microcosm of people who primarily use their Twitter handles as a method to provide quick-bite conversations about the film industry as well as specific movies. As with all Twitter sectors, it can be incredibly insular and circular, feeding off of flash topics of conversation that expand and then quickly retreat. A recent example: there was a short explosion right before the release of WW84 (the truncated title for the new release that is both insufferable and helpful for brevity’s sake) on if it accurate or helpful to refer to superheroes as “modern mythology.” It was a hotly contested conversation amongst my follows, which soon dissipated after a few hours of heated conversation. It was instructive as a microcosm of how Twitter functions: lively discussion amongst like-minded people narrow-casted to a degree where you feel like the whole world is talking about your thing.

And then there was the WW84 phenomenon. Within scant hours of its release (on Christmas Day mind you), people’s opinions were pouring in, with negative opinions mostly drowning out any positive. The film was somehow both too silly and too self-serious, there were questionable political choices made, a whole subplot that pushed against ideas of consent was heavily dissected, the special effects, everything in this movie was pulled apart and pushed under a critical microscope. By having a major release more or less available to everyone at once, from the comfort of their home on a holiday, everyone rushed to make their heated response be known.

I enjoyed Wonder Woman 1984. I didn’t love it, but I thought it was an interesting exercise in classicist superhero filmmaking. It operates under an assumption of not Tim Burton’s Batman nor Jon Favreau’s Iron Man serving as the ur-text for all superhero films to come, but Richard Donner’s Superman. Director Patty Jenkins herself has named Superman as among her initial inspirations for making movies in general, thus to make an ode to that form of mythic storytelling makes perfect sense. The plot is silly and loosely defined, the movie is probably overstuffed with ideas that aren’t precisely connected, but the end result is a movie that feels unique in a genre that has been dominated by a singular tone for so long. It was a rare case where the style of a film overcame a good portion of its substance, which I would describe as middling and confused at best. It is a movie that I would watch, enjoy for what it was worth, and move on.

So why has the film continued to remain a rather hot-button issue for weeks now, as we enter into the new year? Here are a few theories as to what is going on here.

Patty Jenkins directing Gal Gadot

The first Wonder Woman was widely regarded as an unqualified success, and a high watermark for Warner Brothers’ track record for recent superhero films, which can charitably be described as inconsistent at best. Thus the anticipation for this movie, which was complete for nearly two years before its final release, was through the roof. The follow-up to a surprise hit, with the same star and director combination with the central auteur having more creative control seems like a winning formula. Add on to it the additional pressure of being the superheroine with the most cultural cache, and the expectations of a movie like this are likely impossible to clear.

Additionally, this has been a year that has been uncharacteristically bereft of superhero fiction in our mass media; after Birds of Prey came out in February, we haven’t had a single superhero movie. This would be hard to imagine, when we have gotten used to Marvel released two to three every year for over a decade. But with superhero films being the major driver to theaters throughout their dominance, Disney cautiously has held onto their hot hand until they can safely ensure audience can return in massive numbers. It seemed like Warner Brothers had a similar plan for the majority of 2020, but after their soft launch of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and corporate incentive to boost the numbers of their HBO Max service, they pushed their major releases to a dual-release model. If you were willing to trust movie theaters to keep you safe from a deadly pandemic, by all means plop your 12 bucks down and go see it on the biggest screen you can; or if you prefer to see it from the comfort and safety of your own home, that was also an option. This is the model going into next year (which is all WB/AT&T has been willing to comment or commit to), but the blowback has been significant. For this movie to be worth disrupting nearly a century of distribution models, the weight of significance on it being good enough was disproportionate.

The film’s method of bringing Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor back is amongst its most controversial plot point.

And we’re just hungry for big movies. There have been a few stand-out releases (Netflix’s slate of things that were made pre-pandemic stand out as high profile projects), but for the majority of the year movie lovers have been stuffed into weirder and more tangential projects. Looking at the highest grossing films in the United States of 2020 (again, using traditional metrics of financial success), the top five were all released pre-pandemic, with only the bottom three of the top ten being post-pandemic releases (ranging from Tenet at nearly $58 million, to WW84’s two week gross of $28.5 million). Just as people were starting to wonder if they were sick and tired of superheroes as their means of mass popular entertainment, people were given a movie that is both aiming to be big broad populist entertainment and also aggressively eccentric within that genre.

All of this (the immediate access at home to a hotly anticipated film when we’ve been denied big budget spectacles for nearly 8 months) created a circumstance for people’s reactions to being not what they anticipated to be especially magnified. People seemed angry at this movie, with hyperbolic dissections that seemed outsized. But it’s also a section of commentary that has been boiling over for a while now. Itchy to have some mass media piece of entertainment to dive into. So the entire focus of the movie-loving world was centered on an admittedly flawed, weird piece of media that defied expectations. Criticisms were varied and loud, and certainly not without merit. But the explosive ability for it all to pop at once, from critics both professional and amateur, truly showed both the level of interest in a big budget popcorn entertainment, and the effect of instant access.

One thing through all of it that was interesting was how for the most part, the criticisms seemed to come from a place of good faith. This was not a case of a movie being a cause of derision from an ideological standpoint, or being diminished before its release. It was rather an organic, loud online discussion of a movie that lots of diverse people had diverse opinions about. This wasn’t a repeat of Ghostbusters (2016) or The Last Jedi, where legitimate criticism was drowned out by bad actors who were pushing an ideological point, which made others feel the need to defend a film they would otherwise not necessarily champion. WW84 criticism was loud and definitive, but it wasn’t ugly. That was a nice change of pace, given how vitriolic those other films responses have been from day one.

This is sort of the tricky thing about film criticism in a world where Twitter is a means for explosive conversations: how do you have a critical conversation about something seriously, without indulging in your worst demons? As a fan of thoughtful, long-form criticism, I think Twitter both a fun toy to play with, and an ineffective means to express complex thought. WW84 was a perfect film for Twitter film criticism, as it was both immediately available and given to strong emotional outbursts. But I hope the conversation of the film expands beyond kneejerk, instant readings, either positive or negative. As movies become more and more immediately digestible in familiar environs, I hope we don’t lose the ability to have nuanced, thoughtful discussions. It is easy to understand why this film elicited such a response; by next time, hopefully we have better equipped ourselves for discussion.

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