Following how the critical consensus around Wonder Woman 1984 has evolved over time has been a treat. After months of delays, speculation and an impromptu revolutionary up-ending of the ‘traditional release model’, the world at large saw the Patty Jenkins-directed sequel to the 2017 Wonder Woman on Christmas Day. Which is when things got quite interesting because the initial glowing praise pouring from major critics ahead of the release turned sour essentially overnight.
In fact, just this morning I came across a rather interesting piece in Slate (written by Dana Stevens) who tried to unpack this phenomenon of seemingly unwarranted negativity towards the film she clearly enjoyed a lot. Now, I know I was not a fan of the film (and I saw it at the cinema shortly before they closed down again a few weeks ahead of the film’s wide release on Christmas, at a time when the overwhelming majority of takes on the film were positive), but it sure seems interesting to attempt to understand what’s going on here. I don’t necessarily want my two cents on this matter to turn into an out-and-out rebuttal of Stevens’ own take, especially because I do agree with some of her logic and I certainly respect her enthusiasm towards the film I myself did not enjoy. Therefore, consider this an alternative perspective on what’s taken place.
Sure, there is a lot to be said about the toxic negativity of social media compounded by the fact that large numbers of people were able to watch Wonder Woman 1984 simultaneously from the comfort of their lounges, bedrooms and toilets and live tweet their reactions as the film progressed. However, I believe that looking for answers in what drives the negative response towards this film may not be as instructive as trying to parse the overwhelmingly positive reaction from critics that set the scene ahead of the film’s release.
Starting in early December, the first takes from the most reputable and well-established publications slowly started to trickle in, followed by leading blogs, independent outlets and smaller calibre freelancers who were fortunate enough to receive screeners from the distributors. I think this is the place to dig for answers, not post-release Twitter, which is a roiling sea of reactionary vitriol where decency and tact are seen as weaknesses. After all, this isn’t the first time an early critical buzz dissipated when regular moviegoers had their say (Batman v Superman anyone?). I think it would be inappropriate to assume ‘normal’ viewers are wrong to dislike a film the critics loved, as it would serve to widen an already gargantuan rift between the critical community and the rest of the world, which is easily weaponized by studio operatives trying to shift the blame for making unpalatable films. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to suggest that critics who praised the film before its wide release were in any way compromised.
On the other hand, what I feel best describes the situation is a statistical bias brought about partially by the distributor and by simple human psychology. First of all, it has to be understood that big studios like Warner and Disney are known for cherry-picking their early reviewers so as to increase their chances of getting a positive response. Again, this is not a dig against any critics in particular – everyone likes what they like – but rather a dig against PR people who act as gatekeepers dispensing early access to their biggest properties to people most likely to review it well. Thus, a biased sample of reviews is created that may not reflect the actual critical consensus likely to crystallize once everyone has seen the film, let alone the consensus among regular moviegoers.
Moreover, this bias is preserved (and maybe even reinforced) as it trickles down. It is not unimaginable to assume that smaller and independent outlets fortunate to receive a screener from a big studio like Warner would pass it on to writers who are also most likely to review it well or those who are looking forward to watching the film the most. Again, I am in no way suggesting these writers are editorially mandated to produce a positive review. However, having reviewed the film negatively, these smaller outlets might end up blacklisted by the studio and never be given screeners after that, which puts blame squarely in the court of the distributors who implicitly pressure the critical community to produce a favourable consensus in order to stay in the game.
This pattern repeats when independent freelancers are taken into account. I wouldn’t expect big studios to send screeners to everyone and their mother without checking if they are likely to produce a positive review, just as I am aware of the fact these freelancers have to maintain their relationship with PR folks who might stop replying to their emails. Most importantly though, any bias in this scenario is propelled by something completely innocent. Granted, struggling freelancers are well accustomed to bombarding PR contacts on a daily basis and pestering them for screeners to advance their careers, but those who are more excited about seeing and reviewing Wonder Woman 1984 are more likely to try harder to secure these screeners; which will most definitely produce a statistical bias. More positive reviews will be generated because people who do not look forward to this film are probably not going to break their necks to secure a screener or they will be happy for their colleagues at the outlets they write for to review the film instead.
Therefore, I don’t think Twitter negativity has as much to do with the response to Wonder Woman 1984 flipping overnight as the cherry-picking and gerrymandering orchestrated by the PR people at Warner Brothers. In fact, this happens all the time. The only reason it is so noticeable is because Wonder Woman 1984 is one of the only two blockbuster releases of the year and there is very little to talk about otherwise. As I understand it, the collective entertainment starvation has also contributed to the shock value because many of us really wanted for this film to succeed and become a small beacon of positivity the world desperately needs. It didn’t. Not because the viewers are grim and overly negative, but rather because the film might not be as good (on average) as the early reviews indicated it would be.