Over the holidays, Wonder Woman 1984 was released on HBO Max after months of delay. Unfortunately, many critics and nearly all of its viewers hated the much-anticipated sequel. Wonder Woman 1984 is currently ranked the lowest DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film of the franchise which includes Justice League. Justice League is a film so universally hated by fans that after four years of campaigning fans are finally going to see the original cut in 2021. The fact that Wonder Woman is universally praised by fans and critics and is the highest-ranked DCEU film adds more salt to the wound.
The extreme reactions to both Wonder Woman films speak to a greater problem between fan and franchise. For better or for worse, the digital communications age has transformed film critique in two ways. One, the most extreme and exaggerated critique generated the most buzz because of the shorthand communication style of the internet. Two, the internet has allowed fan voices to become unified and loud instead of scattered and individualistic. In other words, without the internet, the complaints of a couple of fans would be written off as angry and rare, but due to the “unionization” of fan critique, they can act as a single powerful unit.
Consequently, fans have increased their buying power.
With more buying power, studios are listening to fans. However, fewer studios are listening because of acquisitions and mergers like the Disney-Fox acquisition. Fewer studios are focusing on larger blockbuster franchises instead of producing original and independent films. Franchises cost more money; therefore, executives will lean towards normal, conventional, and safe storytelling to appeal to the masses and gain their money back fast. As the entertainment industry transforms for the digital age of streaming, fans will have to embrace divisive storytelling in their large blockbuster franchises, not just in independent films, for creativity to survive.
The backlash to Wonder Woman 1984 is not entirely unjustified. The film suffers from a few major flaws such as pacing, lack of diversity, and some questionable plot lines. The problem, however, is that criticism often gets exaggerated, and the only type of critique that gets heard is within the polar extremes. Not often will a film review or opinion garner attention if the main thesis is, “the film was okay.” The most attention is given to thoughts that are either, “This film ruined my entire week” or “This film changed me as a person.” As a result of this inflation, a mediocre film can be viewed as the worst film or best film ever.
The popularization of polarizing opinions is because society has made the internet the place to have discourse. In an internet-driven world, clicks and engagement rates measure success. The more clicks a review receives, the more money and recognition the publishing body and the author gain. Furthermore, internet discourse values short-form communication like character limits on social media posts or lists disguised as articles. Rarely does a three thousand plus word article, an hour-long video, or twenty-post Twitter thread have as high of a click count as short-form content. Film critique that discusses the good and bad film making decisions need to be in a long-form communication style. Long-form content allows the discussion to be holistic and not one-sided. In other words, when reading movie reviews in the form of social media posts and short articles, we read only the thesis instead of the topic sentences and supporting evidence.
Letterboxd and Rotten Tomatoes: A Democratic Process of Film Criticism
The internet has helped everyone find a seat at the table. Before the internet, film reviews and criticism were written by a select demographic who were often rich, educated, white men. A study conducted by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative discovered that of the 19,559 reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes for the year’s top 100 films, 77.8% of all reviewers were male and 82% were white. Film criticism isn’t a binary thumbs up or down statement; rather as Vox writer Alissa Wilkinson says, “criticism is about expanding a work of art, making it part of a cultural conversation and discourse.”
When critics watch a film, they do so through a lens formed by their individual identities and experiences. Then, they write about the film to give new meaning and layers to the film. Therefore, criticism needs to be diverse; more perspectives enrich and expand our understanding of the movie. Luckily, Internet spaces such as YouTube, TikTok, and most notably Letterboxd (a social networking site based entirely around reviewing, discussing, and connecting with others about films you have seen or want to see) make space for film critics who are normally shut out of the traditional mediums of film criticism to share their opinions and grow an audience.
However, like most social media platforms, users can become obsessed with the numbers instead of the actual content. People will read reviews to decide whether or not they should see a film. Yet, the problem is that movie review sites like Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Metacritic boil the reviews down to a number instead of showcasing critics’ arguments and essays. Centering content, rather than scores, is the way film criticism was intended to be.
Review aggregators also destroy the individual scoring system to fit into the site’s rating system. For example, Rotten Tomatoes’ scoring system dictates that a review of 60% or better is fresh (the review thinks the film is good) and if 60% of all the reviews posted are fresh, then the movie itself is good. An individual critic might rate a film 2 out of 4 stars and consider it good, but Rotten Tomatoes would classify the review as rotten. Additionally, some review aggregators are laxer than others on whom can post a review. This means fans could act collectively to influence an overall film score.
Fan Reactions to Franchise vs Original Films
Interestingly, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t the only recent film that falls under the phenomenon of having a mediocre film being branded as “the worst film of all time.” The Last Jedi also received extreme backlash for ruining the much-beloved hero Luke Skywalker and killing off the supposed big villain of the new Star Wars trilogy. The Last Jedi is an example of the aforementioned phenomenon of fans acting collectively to influence a film’s review score and reputation. To add salt to the wound, there are several petitions and fundraisers to have The Last Jedi removed from canon or redone by fans, even three years after its original release.
The most successful petition “Have Disney strike Star Wars Episode VIII from the official canon” amassed over 116,000 signers. The fundraiser, “Remake The Last Jedi” claims to have raised over $150 million from fan donations. Like Wonder Woman 1984, The Last Jedi has some valid criticism like the sidelining of their Black, Latino, and Asian characters who have been marketed as main characters. However, some criticism has been exaggerated. Consequently, the real flaws were dismissed because the lack of nuance on the internet lumped all criticism together. Regardless of whether the backlash is justified, Star Wars fans have immense buying power. Consequently, Disney reportedly took note of the backlash and changed the final installment. Disney also adjusted their future slate of projects to focus on solo films and TV shows based on their annual Investor Day presentation in 2020.
Yet, at the same time, the director of The Last Jedi Rian Johnson received almost universal praise for his film Knives Out for utilizing the same tropes and plot lines in The Last Jedi. The difference? Knives Out was a sleeper indie hit whereas The Last Jedi is part of one of the world’s most popular franchises. Knives Out made over $311.3 million worldwide on a $40 million budget largely due to word-of-mouth marketing. While other Oscar-nominated films or holiday movies’ (e.g. Frozen II) domestic weekly box office gross consistently dropped, Knives Out’s rose and filled theaters across the U.S. more than five weeks after its original release.
As an original movie not based on any existing media property or IP, such box office returns are unheard of. The critical difference on why audiences liked Johnson’s tropes and plotlines in Knives Out over The Last Jedi is that Knives Out had no established fan base with preconceived notions of who the characters were and what they were supposed to accomplish. Audiences did not spend years theorizing about the characters and plot for their expectations to be let down. Ironically, Lionsgate is attempting to make Knives Out into a franchise. Simply put, studios and fans embrace creativity and divisive storytelling in original films, not franchises.
The Future of Film Making in a Smaller Hollywood
Audience resistance to divisive storytelling in franchise films is a bigger problem considering the future of media and the entertainment industry. For U.S. based media, 90% of media and entertainment is produced by four major corporations. Just two years ago the number was six, but this was reduced because The Walt Disney Company acquired most of News Corp’s assets and the Viacom and CBS merger in 2019. No more than 40 years ago, 50 companies owned 90% of U.S. media. Now with the rumor that Comcast's NBCUniversal and AT&T’s WarnerMedia may merge, the number may shrink again. Mergers often mean less original storytelling and more franchises. Studios need to recoup the money; therefore, they will invest in safe cash grab stories with established audiences.
Franchises often require a bigger budget which means less artistic freedom and risk because there is a higher hurdle to get a return on investment. More money means more people need to sign off on decisions. Jordan Peele, director and writer of divisive horror films like Us and the Oscar-winning film Get Out, discussed the inverse relationship between the artistic freedom to take creative risks and money when talking to a film class at UCLA in 2018.
Peele told students “I made a cheap movie. I made a film for $4.5 million. That’s very little money in the film industry. So because of that, I knew I had the leverage to push boundaries, to push buttons, to stand by what the film was meant to be for me. It’s important to be respectful of people’s opinions and still stand up for what you know the film needs to be. I did not have a problem with this film [Get Out]. For my next movie, I could probably be making a more expensive movie. However, I’m going one step up because I know they trust me, but I also know when it gets into a certain area of money, they can’t afford to trust me. What nobody gets to do is get big budgets for original content. They can give me a big budget if I’m doing some kind of superhero film or a franchise that exists. The holy grail is to convince studios to let individuals create a whole new world like the next Star Wars. We’ll get there.”
Creativity Needs to Survive
There is hope for franchisees to engage in creative and risky storytelling. Disney+’s limited series WandaVision is perhaps the most creative, risky, and thought-provoking addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2014. The series follows two B-list characters, with each episode based on a popular sitcom of the featured decade. For example, the first episode was set in the 1950s, meaning it was purposely filmed in the style and based on popular 1950s sitcoms The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy. The premiere episode is in black & white, shown in the old 3:4 TV aspect ratio, includes decade-appropriate ads, is filmed in front of a live studio audience, and uses practical effects instead of using 2020 technology like CGI. The plot itself is also creative and risky centering around parallel universes and alternate realities.
However, such creative and divisive storytelling has always been relegated to the TV world with series like Westworld, Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks, and The Good Place, to name a few. Whether it’s because TV has to keep their audiences consistently engaged or typically has a smaller budget and audience, the quality between TV and film isn’t as clear as it was before thanks to streaming services. While it may seem like TV is surpassing film as the preferred method of video storytelling, studios will still produce films. As the number of places where original storytelling is accepted is decreasing, fans need to embrace diverse storytelling for creativity to survive. After all, fandoms are all about connecting with people who share a common love of the story.