Moondog’s movieboat comes rolling down the stream. I know, it’s been a while. But I watched a movie recently and I can’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t legendary or anything. It wasn’t even that good. I liked it well enough, probably a little more than most people. But I really think that it tapped into something that we’re going to see a lot more of in the post-pandemic future.
Let me ‘splain.
Wonder Woman 1984 earned $16.7 million domestically over the three-day “Covid Christmas” weekend, easily the biggest weekend gross since theaters reopened. In case you forgot how insane this covid stuff is hurting the movie industry, the first Wonder Woman movie grossed $100 million in its first weekend. In related news: I am depressed!
But despite the positive opening weekend, it doesn’t seem like Wonder Woman 1984 has necessarily captured the zeitgeist. Most of the early critics reviews were positive, citing it as “surprisingly deep and charming,” but it’s hard to find a lot of casual moviegoers on Twitter or Letterboxd who are singing its praises.
How could this be? This is the only non-Tenet “summer blockbuster” that’s available to watch right now… why the mixed response?
Well, it’s not marketing
I’ll be honest, I wrote half of a newsletter yesterday comparing Wonder Woman 1984 to Cyberpunk 2077 in terms of being total marketing failures. But after doing some research, this is actually unfair to WW84. When I went back and re-watched WW84’s trailers after seeing the movie, they show you exactly what you’re going to get. Bright colors, 80’s nostalgia, a stacked cast, and big budget blockbuster action scenes. Nothing about the trailers should come across as “a serious comic book movie aimed for adults to enjoy and intended to impact you on a deep intellectual level.” The trailers make the movie look like fun, and that’s exactly what they delivered. I will say, however, one crucial piece is missing from all of WW84’s marketing campaign: Kristen Wiig’s final “Cheetah” form, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Cyberpunk 2077, on the other hand, promised many things that weren’t included in the actual game. Like, three different lifepaths chosen at the beginning of the game that drastically change the outcome of your experience. Weapon customization and a GTA-style “wanted” system. Non gender roles, allowing you to combine any voice/gender/genitalia that you want. And, you know, the ability to actually run well on consoles without crashing every 30 minutes. Cyberpunk was meant to be the most important video game ever. Instead, it’s… fine.
So, if the marketing wasn’t what failed WW84… what was it?
It’s not (totally) the villains
I think it’s fair to say that general audiences nowadays deserve some credit. We’re smarter than we look. The trope that Kristen Wiig’s character follows is a very familiar one: awkward nerd who becomes insanely jealous of a superhero’s alter ego and accidentally stumbles into becoming a supervillain. Jim Carrey did it in Batman Forever. Jamie Foxx did it in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (lol). And I’m sure there are others that I’m not thinking of too.
In the first hour of the movie, Wiig is a delight. Her chemistry with Gal Gadot works as a catalyst for the audience, as we are all shook by Gadot’s glowing aura and her nice b*tt (sorry) (she’s gorgeous). Wiig is very good at playing awkward and nerdy, but she’s bad at being mean and evil. And on top of that, the design of her final “Cheetah” form looks so bad that they actually hide her final boss fight underneath so many dark colors, it’s like they forgot to enable Lumetri color before they exported the final video. You literally can’t see a thing. And it’s certainly intentional, because Cheetah just looks so dumb. Her “supervillain reveal” probably should’ve been saved for either the “fast-tracked” Wonder Woman 3 currently in development, or just scrapped entirely.
Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord, on the other hand, is absolutely insane. They clearly gave him the green light to, for lack of a better term, “ham it the fuck up.” Pascal goes all the way. He takes a little bit of Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Molina’s Doc Ock from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, and mixes it with a little bit of Nicholson’s Joker and Walken’s Max Shreck from Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and then tops it off with a heavy garnish of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor from the Richard Donner Superman movies. And the latter is the most important ingredient, not only for his character, but for the film in general. But we’ll get to that in a second.
Despite his strong performance, general audiences might actually have a bigger problem with Pedro Pascal’s supervillain than Kristen Wiig’s. His character makes really dumb decisions, and raises the stakes of the film to impossible levels. But Pascal just oozes a charisma that we haven’t really gotten to see from him since his “fucklord” performance as Oberyn on Game of Thrones. Pascal totally pulls off being a slimey, motivated, evil businessman, because he’s inherently handsome and charming. And slimey. Like a sexy earthworm. (He actually reminded me of Christian Bale’s hammy performance in American Psycho)
Also- it goes without saying that Donald Trump was an obvious influence on Pascal’s character. Maybe too obvious of an influence? But either way, Pascal and Wiig certainly aren’t the main reason for this movie’s mixed response. So what is it?
It’s time for Mitch to blame Marvel
I mean… at this point, you really can’t talk about any comic book movie without talking about the MCU. It is what is is. And I’ve been pretty vocal about not being the biggest Marvel fan in the world, but I still like them! In fact, I think my MCU rankings are a pretty good representation of not only what I want to see from Marvel movies, but what I want to see from comic book movies in general.
Let’s see if you can figure it out. Here’s my top 10:
There’s a clear trend there. GoTG, Ragnarok, Homecoming, Iron Man 3 and Doctor Strange are all inherently “fun” Marvel movies. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the boring ones too! The Avengers, Black Panther and Endgame are all pretty good. But honestly, if I want a “serious” and borderline boring superhero movie, we all know Batman is my guy. I take my Batman seriously. When it comes to Marvel… I don’t take it seriously, honestly. I just want to have fun!
Yes, I’m a little biased because I grew up loving Batman and the Justice League cartoons. But am I a DC Comics stan? In the past couple of years, I’ve read probably 15-20 Batman graphics novels, three Daredevil ones, and two The Vision ones. So really, I’m just a Batman stan.
But it really doesn’t make a difference that Wonder Woman is a DC superhero and not a Marvel one. I guarantee that your mom and dad probably think that WW84 is just another Marvel movie.
So this is it, this is where we get down to the crux of the issue here.
MCU’s continuity was a curse in disguise
In the year 2020, when movie theaters are dying along with our attention spans, no one wants to go see a movie that doesn’t feel important. We need it to be worth our time. Gone are the days of seeing a standalone summer popcorn action flick just for the fuck of it. Nowadays, no matter if we’re seeing the next Tom Cruise movie, a new The Rock movie, James Bond or even a Trolls movie, there sure as hell better be some type of through-line connecting this movie to the last one. And we better get a set-up for the sequel. This is a necessity that people have come to expect.
Marvel has perfected this. They took the formula that Jon Favreau laid out in 2008’s Iron Man: cast a charismatic/funny leading actor (RDJ), with an easy-to-follow plot, fill it with blockbuster action scenes, get a recognizable actor to play the villain (Jeff Bridges), and sprinkle in enough lore and easter eggs to please the real comic-book fans.
But Marvel’s real ace in the hole? They serialized it. They made it seem like if you don’t drop $50 to see a Marvel movie on opening weekend, then you’re an absolute loser who will be excluded from any water-cooler talk, AND you won’t be able to look at social media without getting the movie ruined for you.
This is the moment, some time between 2008 and 2010, where comic book movies stopped being nerdy guilty pleasures and started becoming true “popular culture.” You were weird if you didn’t go see the new Marvel movie at midnight, and the hot girl in your chemistry class was suddenly dissecting plot points for Iron Man 2.
People started looking at comic book movies with the same level of gravitas that you find from serialized high-budget TV dramas like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. We started showing up for the next movie because we’re already invested in the characters, so if we skip one little film (like an Ant-Man sequel), then we run the risk of missing out on an important post-credits sequence that sets up the next movie. And now, we’ve come to expect that any comic book movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, or doesn’t set up the next 6 movies down the line is suddenly a waste of our time.
But it wasn’t always this way
I’m a Bond guy, so I’m going to use Bond as an example. The new Daniel Craig Bond movies are generally well-received. They look pretty. They’re well-directed and well-casted, and we all like Daniel Craig. But there is a big flaw in these films, and it’s a flaw big enough for both diehard Bond fans and casual moviegoers to spot:
2006’s Casino Royale was a soft reboot for the character. It gave Bond the Batman Begins-style origin story that we had never seen before. They followed it up 2 years later with Quantum of Solace, which picked up minutes after the final seconds of Casino Royale, making it the first true sequel in the franchise. Quantum ended with Bond literally throwing his past away, ready to move on and begin his life as the true MI6 secret agent that we had grown to love.
So they followed it up in 2012 with Skyfall, a true standalone spy story. Bond gets a mission. Bond travels to bad guy. Bond kills bad guy. Bond saves world. It had nothing to do with the previous movies. It even ends with M asking Bond (and the audience), “are you ready to begin?” Yes, yes we were. The origin story is over. Bond begins now.
Keep in mind the time period here. Skyfall was released in 2012, the same year as The Avengers, and one year after the first Captain America. Movies were changing, fast. The Avengers was the big payoff after a couple of Iron Man movies and a bad Thor movie, and we all fucking loved it. This was the new model. A couple of set-up movies, followed by the big payoff. Easy money.
EON Productions, always ready to jump onto any current movie trend, saw this as an opportunity. Instead of doing a standalone spy adventure, they decided to inject the 2015 Skyfall sequel (Spectre) with layers upon layers of continuity, familiar characters, through-lines, set-ups and payoffs. Because audiences need serialization. They need an extended universe. This isn’t Roger Moore’s James Bond anymore, this is more like a Doctor Who series. Make the villain (Christoph Waltz) be responsible for everything that happened in the previous 3 films. Make the villain secretly be the most popular villain in the franchise (Blofeld), just for the REAL fans out there (lol). And on top of all that, why not make the villain secretly be James Bond’s brother? Everyone loved Austin Powers Goldmember, right?
Sure enough, this was a bad idea. It felt half-assed, rushed, and ended up pleasing nobody. And now, we’re stuck with a thrice-delayed finale (No Time to Die) that carries the weight of having to wrap up Daniel Craig’s entire 5-film story arc, while also giving us the standalone save-the-world adventure that we’ve been craving. A lot is riding on this film’s shoulders. It feels more like a “season finale” than an action flick (probably why it’s nearly 3 hours long).
In short, Spectre failed because it gave us too much serialization. Remember this.
Wasn’t this supposed to be about Wonder Woman 1984?
Oh yea, we’re getting there.
WW84, a movie that takes place in 1984 and is filled with 80’s nostalgia at every possible turn, is a movie that is entirely ahead of it’s time. Why? Because it says fuck continuity. If we’re going to do serialization, let’s be a Saturday morning cartoon. And for all it’s flaws, WW84 is entirely successful in this way. This movie is throwing it back to the Roger Moore Bond films, where we watch the hero save the world every 2 years, and then we’re on to the next one like it never happened.
A better example is the Richard Donner Superman films. After Zack Snyder’s failed Superman movies (looking back, it’s really hard to make Henry Cavill look bad), DC was left without a tentpole. And after how good The Dark Knight trilogy was, it was still too soon for a DCEU Batman. But Snyder stumbled onto something great with his shitty, half-finished Justice League movie: Wonder Woman is the new Superman.
She’s optimistic. She fights during the daytime. She wears bright primary colors. She’s hot. And she can fly. These are all characteristics of Superman, and the antithesis of Batman. But we don’t want them, we need something new. Her.
How is it ahead of its time, though?
We are already seeing the limitations of serialization and continuity. Some franchises (Disney) can execute it in an organized and orderly manner (the MCU and The Mandalorian). Others (like Warner Bros. and EON) try to half-ass it and end up pleasing no one. So, where do we go from here?
We go towards WW84. Serialized Saturday morning cartoons. After the worst year of our lives, we really just want to have fun. We need a palette cleanser. We don’t need a 6-film story arc with an HBO Max spin-off. DC is already planning this with The Batman and Suicide Squad movies, and it probably won’t work. DC is always operating years behind Marvel, and this is no different.
How do you stick out? Go against the grain. Go back to the standalone specials. Be weird. Be goofy. The audience will go with it as long as it’s good.
It’s hard to totally blame DC, though. Audiences have no clue what they want. Especially now more than ever, in a post-Avengers world. We just need movies to be good. And WW84, for all the good and bad, still isn’t good enough for most people.
But in 2025, in a true post-pandemic era, we’ll be going back to that 1970s light-hearted content. No dark shit, just light-on-its-feet, rollicking fun vibes. No overstuffed canon lore. Just solo home runs. A banger of a popcorn flick, followed up by something totally different. A silly escape. Self-contained stories. We’ll look at each other and say, “remember when every IP thought they needed an extended universe?” And we’ll laugh.
WW84 tried to do something different, but we didn’t know we needed it yet. Just give us a heads-up next time. And maybe don’t have a cat-villain?
The movieboat is a magical boat ride filled with all of the extremely useful information that populates my brain.
If you’ve made it this far, send me a pig emoji! Thanks for reading!