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In a move that shattered expectations and the traditional theatrical release model, Warner Bros. announced Wednesday that it will be simultaneously releasing Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and on HBO Max in U.S. for one month, beginning on Christmas Day. Patty Jenkins’ highly anticipated sequel is one of numerous theatrical releases that have been set back because of COVID-19. But the wait for the sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman has felt exceptionally long given that the film was originally slotted for the fall of 2019. With promotional tie-ins having already rolled out for the planned June 2020 release, marketing in full swing, and no guarantee that theaters will be back to something close to “normal” next year, HBO Max has become something of a saving grace, if not financially, then at least in terms of providing a bright spot of anticipation in a tough year.
There will certainly be plenty of conversations to come about what this new release strategy means in terms of the film’s monetary goals, and whether future releases will follow this format. But for now, it’s becoming clear that the future of HBO Max is uniquely tied to the future of the DC Extended Universe, which opens up numerous possibilities, and a few challenges.
HBO Max was always going to be a hub for DC Comics content from the beginning, and its effect on the streaming service DC Universe was almost immediate, with much of the service’s original content moving to HBO Max while DC Universe reshapes its identity. But beyond series like Doom Patrol and Titans, and classic films like Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), HBO Max is becoming increasingly important to the future of the DCEU. Following the announcement earlier this year that Zack Snyder would have the opportunity to finish his cut of Justice League and release it on HBO Max in 2021, fans began speculating about whether the franchise that began with Man of Steel (2013) could continue in this format. On the television side of things, Matt Reeves’ The Batman and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad are both set to receive HBO Max spinoffs with series inspired by Gotham Central and Peacemaker, respectively. This is not unlike what Disney is doing with its Star Wars and Marvel series on Disney+. But the release of Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max could signal to HBO Max subscribers that streaming films are an equally important asset to building the DCEU, even if they weren’t originally intended to be released in that format.
This is not to suggest that theaters are no longer a necessary part of movie watching or franchise building, but rather looking realistically at a future that will be shaped by this pandemic even after it’s been controlled. There are certain restraints that come with theatrical releases, and we’ve seen numerous would-be franchises die on the vine despite a vocal and enthusiastic fanbase. The advent of the billion-dollar superhero movie with The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012) set incredibly lofty expectations for what these comic-based films should make. For example, Birds of Prey made $201.8 million on an $82 million budget and an R-rating, yet was branded a financial disappointment very early on its release, seeming to dash the chances of it becoming a series. Yet Cathy Yan’s film was well-received, has built quite a fanbase, and boasts an enthusiastic cast of actors who have expressed an eagerness to return to their characters. Now, that’s not to say Birds of Prey would have received a different narrative of success as an HBO Max release, but any future of the series might conceivably be sold more easily to investors as an HBO Max film than a purely theatrical release.
Not every character can have the success of Batman on film, and that may become a guiding force for what Warner Media chooses to release and how it chooses to release it. And when you look at the MCU, even with the brand recognition and ability to take characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man and turn them into viable theatrical properties, there is a reason characters like She-Hulk, Moon Knight, and Hawkeye are debuting in Disney+ series rather than solo films. And in DC’s case, there’s a reason we’re getting a Peacemaker series rather than a Peacemaker movie. It’s not a question of quality, but of meeting the fans where they’re at and on platforms where fan-favorite characters and filmmakers are most likely to succeed.
Wonder Woman, of course, would have had no problem with recognition should 2020 have been like any other year. Her film going to HBO Max alongside theaters isn’t a knock on the character’s popularity, rather a sign of the times. But, in putting a massive, popular film like that on HBO Max, and following it up with Zack Snyder’s Justice League, potentially raises an awareness for what HBO Max has to offer fans of comic book media. A Peacemaker series doesn’t seem so out of left-field, or inessential to a general audience member, if HBO Max has already built a reputation off of essential entries like Wonder Woman 1984. And similarly, the proposed film spinoffs of Aquaman (2018) and Wonder Woman — The Trench and The Amazons, respectively — seem like the kind of properties that could easily become events on HBO Max rather than potentially risky ventures as solely theatrical experiences in an incredibly crowded marketplace.
Should Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder’s Justice League prove to be successful for HBO Max and help build a brand of trust with viewers, then it seems more likely that we could see an HBO Max film centered on Jurnee Smollett’s Black Canary, a series focused on the history of ancient Atlantis, or even the two sequels to Justice League that would complete Zack Snyder’s proposed five-film arc. In that sense, much like what Disney+ has built with The Mandalorian, these stories on streaming platforms would feel additive to the theatrical experience.
The hiccup with this plan is HBO Max’s lack of availability internationally. While certain HBO series appear on other cable networks due to licensing deals, Wonder Woman 1984, unfortunately, looks to be only a theatrical option outside of America. If the service really wants to become an essential part in building the DCEU, it’s going to have to take into account the global fandom and allow them to experience these films and series at the same time and in the same quality that we experience them in America. Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max isn’t the ideal release for everyone, but it also seems like the most logical path forward at this time. And hopefully it creates a shift in the market in which box office results of the first two weeks in theaters aren’t seen as the most effective way for studios to determine fan interest and franchise sustainability. If Woman Woman stands for truth, perhaps this groundbreaking release of Wonder Woman 1984 will provide the truest sense of what HBO Max is capable of when it comes to pleasing investors and fans.