Wonder Woman 1984 is getting a simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max, but the streaming service still lacks some important features.
In the latest effort to make blockbuster releases work in the middle of a global pandemic, Warner Bros. has announced that Wonder Woman 1984 will release simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. There's barely more than a month to go before the movie's Christmas Day release, but AT&T's streaming service has several features that ideally need to be fixed in order to make it fit for an Amazonian princess.
The closure of theaters, and reluctance of moviegoers to risk visiting those that are open, is a problem that the movie industry has been struggling to solve throughout 2020. Some studios have simply pushed back tentpole releases to 2021, while others have experimented with Premium VOD releases. Wonder Woman 1984 had already been pushed back from its planned 2019 release date to summer 2020, and then had to be delayed again due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was moved to an August release date, then October, and then December - at which point there were rumors it could end up joining the already-crowded 2021 release schedule.
Fortunately for DC fans, it looks like Wonder Woman 1984 has seen the last of its delays. Though obviously not ideal for the studio (which would have preferred a full-blown exclusive theatrical release), the simultaneous release means that people can see the movie in theaters where it's relatively safe to do so, or watch it from the safety of their own homes in places where it's not. For those who want to create a home cinema experience in which to watch Wonder Woman 1984, however, HBO Max falls short in a few different ways.
HBO Max Needs 4K
One area in which HBO Max lags behind competitors like Netflix and Disney+ is its lack of 4K HDR streaming, with content so far only available in 1080p SDR. It's a surprising oversight, all the more so because HBO Max launched almost six months ago and there's no news yet of when subscribers will be given the option to watch in 4K. The Ultra HD viewing format is a step above 1080p and Blu-ray quality, and is arguably essential for a new movie like Wonder Woman 1984, which was filmed with the intention of being seen for the first time in theaters. For those who have invested in 4K televisions and are hoping to recreate the experience of seeing Wonder Woman 1984 on the big screen at home, HBO Max's current 1080p quality ceiling is a problem.
In June 2020, HBO Max product chief Andy Forssel told CNET that 4K HDR is a "super-high priority" and part of the "roadmap" for HBO Max, but there have been no updates since then. Streaming quality reared its head as an issue in HBO Max's predecessors, HBO Go and HBO Now, during episodes of Game of Thrones season 8 that featured very dark and foggy battle scenes. Limited bitrates and compression turned the complex shadows and particles into confusing blotches, even for viewers with high-end TVs. HBO Max streams at double the bitrate of HBO Go and HBO Now, but remains capped at 1080p SDR with no confirmation yet that Wonder Woman 1984 will be available to stream in 4K.
HBO Max Needs Dolby Atmos Support
Another area where HBO Max lags behind competitors like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ is its sound quality. The streaming service offers Dolby 5.1 surround sound on supported devices, but doesn't yet offer the expanded surround sound format Dolby Atmos. Though this may only be noticed by audiophiles who have invested in a home theater system with a good surround sound set-up, it's another way in which HBO Max isn't quite ready to premiere a blockbuster release like Wonder Woman 1984. Like 4K and HDR streaming, Dolby Atmos support was said to be on the "roadmap" for HBO Max after the service launched, but there's been no further news about it since then.
Subtitles Still Don't Work Right On HBO Max
One area where HBO Max should theoretically have the edge over Wonder Woman 1984's theatrical release is the availability of subtitles. However, subtitles have been a problem area for the streaming service since its launch. Titles in HBO Max's library lack the option for subtitles in different languages, offering only English. As of 2016, 15% of the adult population in the U.S. speaks a language other than English at home, and even those who speak English proficiently may prefer to have subtitles to help them follow the dialogue more easily. Moreover, even the subtitles that are available are technically unpolished; common complaints from subscribers include the text being too large or off-center, text colors that fail to stand out from the background, distracting typos, and - most egregiously - the subtitles slipping out of sync with what's happening on screen.
HBO Max Needs Roku Support
Amazon Fire TV users gained access to HBO Max this week (though it was available through a workaround before), but Roku users are still out of luck. Between set top boxes and smart TVs that use Roku as their built-in operating system, there are 43 million active Roku accounts in the United States as of August 2020. HBO Max is currently unavailable on these devices, since parent company AT&T has yet to secure a distribution deal with Roku. On this front, at least, we can offer some good news.
On Monday 16 November, HBO Max announced that it would soon become available on Amazon Fire TV devices. On Thursday 19, not long after the news broke about Wonder Woman 1984 getting a simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max, both AT&T and Roku stock prices rose amid rumors that the two companies are on the verge of announcing a similar distribution deal. Barring any further complications, users can likely look forward to watching Wonder Woman 1984 on their Roku devices when the movie releases next month.
The first Wonder Woman movie grossed more than $1 billion at the box office, and the initial delay for Wonder Woman 1984 was intended to ensure that director Patty Jenkins had enough time to deliver a polished sequel with similar prospects. The coronavirus pandemic has been a major roadblock for what would have likely been one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, and its release on HBO Max is therefore a huge deal. If all goes well, the DC movie could end up bringing in a large wave of new subscribers - which makes it all the more important that its first few days of release aren't plagued with complaints about streaming quality and bad subtitles.