The Christmas blockbuster is a holiday staple that feels as essential as leaving out cookies for Santa. (Not to be mistaken with blockbusters about Christmas, but those are fine too.) Under Disney, Lucasfilm has made a habit of releasing a new Star Wars film around the holidays, beginning in 2015 with The Force Awakens. When Star Wars has taken a year off, other blockbusters have filled the void: Christmas of 2018 was the year of Aquaman, the *greatest superhero film of them all. (*This claim is disputed, etc.)
But as family gatherings are discouraged this winter amid a raging pandemic that has claimed over 250,000 American lives, theaters have pretty much punted on the rest of 2020. While Christopher Nolan’s Tenet tried to revive the moviegoing experience—the film fared decently overseas, but didn’t make a splash domestically without being able to pack theaters in major markets like New York and Los Angeles—some theater chains have temporarily closed down to offset additional costs. It would be a terrible idea to venture to a theater this winter; thankfully, there’s little incentive. Besides, as long as you have HBO Max, you can still check out the Wonder Woman sequel and get your Christmas blockbuster fix.
As announced on Wednesday, Warner Bros. has decided to simultaneously release Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and on its streaming service on Christmas Day, an unprecedented move that’s appropriate for these unprecedented times. Unlike Disney’s decision to put Mulan on Disney+ for a rental cost of $30, Wonder Woman 1984 will be available on HBO Max at no additional cost to subscribers. You could, in theory, still seek the movie out at a theater, but the decision is a tacit acknowledgement by the corporate overlords that a great majority of people would rather see Wonder Woman 1984 from the comfort (and safety) of their living rooms. From there, the particulars are a little more complicated: The film will be released in international markets on December 16. (HBO Max isn’t available overseas.) And Wonder Woman 1984 will be available on HBO Max for only a month before entering a traditional windowing period, meaning it will be available on VOD before making its way back to the service at a later date.
HBO Max has struggled to pull in subscribers since launching in the spring, despite perhaps having a better slate of offerings than every other streaming service. (Especially if you don’t have children and aren’t obsessed with Baby Yoda). In Warner’s best-case scenario, this decision will convince people to get HBO Max to watch Wonder Woman 1984, and those people will stick around for additional DC movies, the full Studio Ghibli catalog, acclaimed HBO series like The Wire and The Sopranos, and so on. (HBO Max really does rule, even if Warner Bros. doesn’t know how to market it.)
Of course, another major blockbuster going straight to streaming will invite more prognosticating about the future of the theatrical experience. Those concerns aren’t unfounded, and the Wonder Woman 1984 news won’t please distributors. But this decision might be more about Warner Bros. trying to boost HBO Max than acknowledging the death of theaters—after all, the studio has plenty of tentpole releases it’s saving for 2021, including Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. We’re still in the early stages of the screening of potentially effective COVID-19 vaccines, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, believes it’s possible that a majority of Americans could be vaccinated by the end of April. If all goes well, we should by that point have a better gauge of how comfortable people will be with returning to theaters. (Personally, one of my first orders of business after getting vaccinated will be preordering tickets for Fast 9.)
We are, hopefully, closer to the end of a traumatic period in human history than we are to the beginning. But until people are vaccinated and ready to see a movie on a giant indoor screen, the theatrical experience isn’t viable—as a matter of business or public health. We’re in the middle of what could be a devastating winter, with cases spiking all across the nation. Ideally, Wonder Woman 1984 would’ve received a glitzy rollout befitting the sequel to one of the most acclaimed superhero films of the past decade. But this is the hand we’ve been dealt, and if that means seeing one of the biggest movies of the year from a couch instead of an IMAX screen, well, at least we’re still getting a Christmas blockbuster in 2020.