Wonder Woman’s origin myth is well known: Princess Diana of Themyscira quits her beloved fantasy island of Amazonian warrior women and sets out into the human world to help save us from our worst instincts, like a sort of kick-ass female Jesus in red, blue and gold. You might think Gal Gadot’s battling goddess would be better off heading home, given we’re in the middle of a pandemic, otherwise it probably won’t be long until she needs a little saving herself, along with all the other superhero movies out there.
Covid 19’s ability to shutter cinemas worldwide could fundamentally alter the way these big-budget productions are put together in future. It was reported this week that forthcoming sequel Wonder Woman 1984 will be the first film screened in 4K Ultra HD on the new US streaming service HBO Max, from Christmas Day. It’s also heading to cinemas at the same time (fans outside the US won’t have the streaming option for now), but whether anyone really feels like heading out to a multiplex with the virus raging and temperatures plunging when they can simply download an app and watch in the comfort of their own home remains to be seen.
Patty Jenkins’ film, which is set in the 1980s, will be free to view on HBO Max as the Warner Bros-owned service tries to get fans signing up. It’s a completely new way of funding blockbuster movies, and it remains to be seen how it will work in the long run. If Warner picks up zillions of subscribers who then stay with the service, the studio could be quids in. But what then for future movies in the DC “extended universe”, which Warner also owns? Might executives stop bothering with theatrical releases at all if they can effectively cut out the middle man and go direct to the audience?
Why make these incredibly costly movies at all if not to release them in cinemas?
At this point, we have to ask: why make these incredibly expensive superhero movies at all if not to release them in cinemas? The high-spec technical set-ups in multiplexes are precisely the reason costumed crimefighters have taken over Hollywood in the last decade. If fans want to have their peepers electrified with spectacular big-screen special effects (whether 3D or not), and their ears massaged with booming, next-level sound erupting from all corners of the auditorium, then cinemas (ideally the top-level Imax iterations) are undoubtedly the place to go. Superhero films tick all the right sci-fi/fantasy boxes to allow the special-effects people to let loose with their skills. But watching them in the front room? Not so much.
If we are going to be seeing these movies increasingly at home in the future, one has to wonder if studios might consider that they can easily cut costs and get the same number of subscribers by producing lower-budget, more intimate material. Star Wars tour de force The Mandalorian on Disney+ was made for a mere $15m an episode, yet has drawn the kind of rave reviews that put the latest big-screen episode in the long-running space opera, The Rise of Skywalker, in the shade. Wonder Woman 1984 was made for a relatively modest $200m, but the fact is that HBO could probably have produced a full TV series of a dozen episodes for the same price.
Could the movie format itself be under threat? In a world where success is being measured increasingly by stream numbers and subscribers, rather than ticket sales, episodic material makes increasing sense. As film and TV consumers, we are not just heading out to see a movie once a month for a big splurge, we are demanding something fantastic to see in our front room every night – in part as a kind of reward for all the stresses and strains the pandemic has put everyone under.
With a vaccine on the horizon, it could be that life goes back to normal around springtime. Unfortunately, in the meantime, we have all become ravenously entitled, all-consuming content gut-buckets – and whether consumer habits do the same remains to be seen. By collapsing the longstanding “theatrical window”, which means cinemas generally got big movies exclusively for at least six weeks before they move to the small screen and putting everything on streaming services, Hollywood has seemingly opened up Pandora’s box and invited us all in to gorge ourselves silly.