Well, my fellow Revengers, it’s certainly been an interesting couple of weeks to be a DC fan, hasn’t it? After over a year of contemplative navel-gazing about Justice League, the Snyder Cut debate, the power shakeups at DC Entertainment, the “Will they? Won’t they?” game being played about whether or not we’ll ever see Ben Affleck or Henry Cavill back as Batman and Superman, and the myriad of other major behind-the-scenes DC subplots…we finally got a new movie to talk about: Aquaman.
And I’d like to be the first to apologize for something:
I’m sorry I was so completely wrong about how “rough” Aquaman‘s release date was going to be.
I was very vocal there for a while, about how I thought it was a huge strategic mistake to release the film on December 21, opposite Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns and Paramount’s Bumblebee, but the film’s performance at the box office has shut me right up. They’ve done it, folks! DC Entertainment and James Wan have crafted a runaway hit with Aquaman and I’m so excited to be able to say that, and to be so happily wrong about that release date being a problem.
So now that the film has become a smash and has sat atop the weekend box office for three consecutive weeks, what happens next? This is usually when a studio announces a sequel, takes a victory lap or two, and we keep things moving along like clockwork.
That’s the norm, and yet what’s interesting to discuss, is that the situation over in the Worlds of DC is anything but “business as usual” right now. And there’s lots of ways that the success of Aquaman can be looked at, which makes this period right now so crucial to the future of DC on film.
Now, before we get started let’s get one major thing out of the way:
There is no bad news here. There is no “doom and gloom” to share, so look elsewhere if you’re hoping to make people feel bad about Aquaman.
With that said, there are some things to consider here that may cut a little close to home for some of you, so it’s important to note that things are still fluid and we won’t know exactly how the studio is choosing to interpret Aquaman‘s success for a bit.
So let’s have a look at a couple of the ways the triumph of Aquaman could be viewed by the studio, and what impact that could have on DC’s cinematic future:
Takeaway #1: “Heart, Hope, and Humor Have Won!“
The two biggest successes of the cinematic DC Universe thus far have been Aquaman and Wonder Woman. My metrics for success aren’t merely financial. If they were, I’d also give Suicide Squad an honorable mention, because people like to conveniently forget that SS– and Batman v Superman, for that matter- made a bunch of money. But since we all know that box office performance doesn’t equate to quality, when I say “success” I mean a combination of being both a financial winner and creating a positive buzz with audiences.
In that regard, Aquaman and Wonder Woman are the two shining, undisputed champs of the DC Universe. They’ve each made a ton of money, they’ve each garnered generally positive reviews, and both received good CinemaScores from audiences (AM got a A-, WW got an A). And they did so by being unapologetically optimistic, old fashioned tales of heroism.
They both essentially follow, to the letter, what former Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns championed for the brand: “Heart, Hope, Humor, and Optimism.”
So if you’re an executive, you could very easily look at these two films and say “Johns was right. This is the way we’re going from now on.”
Aquaman, similar to Wonder Woman (both of which utilized Johns’ creative services), took some small liberties with the canon established under Zack Snyder, and audiences didn’t seem to mind that one bit. On the contrary, they celebrated both characters being portrayed in a different light. That’s why you could argue that they’d feel great just flushing away the polarizing past.
But on the other hand, you could also (completely justifiably) go with…
Takeaway #2: “Aquaman Is Proof That The Zack Snyder Era Is Still Viable“
Despite Aquaman looking and feeling like a very different animal than some of DC’s most spoken-of films these last few years- films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman– you can just as easily argue that the film did so well because audiences really enjoyed what they saw of the character in BvS and Justice League.
This is a big deal because, coming out of Justice League, the studio had some major doubts about whether or not the existing canon was viable anymore. That film failed to do any kind of remarkable business and, while it got better marks from fans and critics than BvS did, it was still seen a dismal disappointment. That’s why the studio has been waiting with bated breath to see how Aquaman would do.
As I’ve written about before, if it bombed…it would’ve likely become the final nail in the coffin of the old “DCEU.” But if it succeeded, it would give the studio a sigh of relief about the time and money they’ve already invested in these versions of these characters, and it would also give them leeway to be more open-minded about what to keep and what to discard from the Zack Snyder Era of DC on film.
And we now know that it’s succeeding. Big time.
So if you’re an executive, or the captain of the ship like Walter Hamada, you can very easily point to the success of Aquaman as proof that the Snyder Era could (and possibly should) live on.
Isn’t that a little wild? How its success can mean two totally different things if you’re trying to decide whether Snyder’s influence should remain or continue to be slowly retconned out of existence?
With that in mind, if they are looking at things this second way, then that could bode quite nicely for us seeing Affleck or Cavill again one day as Batman or Superman, respectively. And it definitely bodes well for the return of Ezra Miller as The Flash.
But what about how they look at things specifically with regard to the canon?
Takeaway #3: “Audiences Don’t Care About The Continuity! Just Make Good Movies!“
When you consider that Aquaman is a follow up to Justice League, and even name-drops that film’s central villain, while also retconning certain elements in a way very similar to what Wonder Woman did after Batman v Superman, an argument can be made that audiences don’t really care about the “canon” at all.
Heck, Fox has felt that way for years, hence why you’d be hard-pressed to find a consistent narrative through line for their X-Men movies- which are rife with contradictions, yet have still ended up giving being very successful for the studio overall.
Whether it’s tweaking the dynamic between Arthur and Mera, the costume modifications, or the way we go from an Arthur who’s mad at his mother in Justice League to an Arthur who loves and longs for his mother in Aquaman, James Wan and co. definitely tweaked things. And audiences are on the verge of making this the first billion dollar DC film since The Dark Knight Rises.
So you could easily say, “Canon? What canon? Who cares? The two most raved-about DC films of the last seven years weren’t slaves to canon, so we don’t really have to care about these films lining up perfectly.“
But you could also come away with…
Takeaway #4: “Aquaman ties itself to Justice League, and is still a huge success. So this continuity matters.”
At a time when it’s entirely possible that we may have seen the last of Ben Affleck as Batman, and of Henry Cavill as Superman, it’s interesting to make the argument that audiences have been ready to shower these films with a billion bucks…but simply haven’t been given the films to do so.
And when you look at the fact that Wonder Woman and Aquaman have been big winners for the studio by building off of the world established in Batman v Superman, it’d be incredibly easy to say, “While folks didn’t necessarily love the introductions for these characters, they’re still willing to give their solo films a chance- provided their directors change the way they’re presented a bit.”
So if you’re an executive sitting there with your arms crossed, saying you won’t budge on trying to bring Affleck or Cavill back, the success of Aquaman may get you to put your guard down. You may suddenly get way more precious about the established canon, and its stars, because Aquaman is proof that audiences are still engaged in these iterations of the characters.
And if you do, that could make you way more willing to restart or resume negotiations you may have long thought of as dead. And it could also inform the kinds of notes you offer to other upcoming DC filmmakers. Where was in the past, you may have said “Don’t worry about the other movies. We’re moving away from that, do your own thing,” the success of Aquaman might make you say instead, “Your film must ‘play nice’ with the other DC films we’ve released, cause they’re all connected.“
No matter which way they end up going, it’s clear that the DC brand is alive and well, and that the studio has some serious flexibility on how to proceed. The film doing as well as it has gives them wiggle room, and means they’re beyond capable of bouncing back if another film misfires. But make no mistake about it, these next weeks and months will determine which direction they take, as they try to learn the right lessons from the film’s success.
It reminds me of what happened with Lucasfilm. Shortly after the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in the winter of 2016, there were some big meetings held in January of 2017. Those meetings were held in order to conduct a proper postmortem on Rogue One and determine where they’d like to take Star Wars next, now that the standalone film had made $1.1 Billion.
And they misread the situation.
They looked at the success of Rogue One and seemingly learned the wrong lesson, which was that: “People just love Star Wars. Whether it’s a standalone story like Rogue One, or part of the Episodic Saga, they’ll show up in droves- especially if there’s some nostalgia involved (like featuring Darth Vader prominently in RO).“
Then Solo: A Star Wars Story came out a year and a half later, bombed, and now they’ve completely shifted gears. All future Star Wars Story movies were put on ice for the immediate future.
So these pivot points in a studio’s plan are quite fascinating to watch. What lessons do they learn? How do they act on those lessons? How in tune with their audience are they? How does one determine if something is the start of a trend, or simply lightning in a bottle that won’t be replicated? Specifically for Warner Bros, which wants to go back to being very filmmaker-friendly, does the success of Aquaman affect the kinds of notes they give to other directors about their plans for characters like Batman or the Birds of Prey?
As always, I’ll keep an eye on all of this and report it all exclusively for you here on Revenge of The Fans, all while trying to gleam whatever insights I can from my sources at the studio.
On Deck For Later This Week: A column about the biggest unsung hero at DC Entertainment, in the wake of Aquaman.