“Aquaman” delivers DC its biggest hit yet
Views 16 | Time to read: 5 minutes | Uploaded: 1 - 30 - 2019 | By: Wesley Stenzel
Following the spectacular failure of 2017’s “Justice League,” Warner Brothers and the DC Extended Universe needed a win. In an era when Marvel’s “Avengers” films crack a billion dollars in a matter of weeks, DC’s own flagship team-up movie couldn’t crack $700 million at the worldwide box office, despite the massive success of “Wonder Woman” a few months before. With prolonged behind-the-scenes issues, poor marketing, and horrendous reviews, “Justice League” seemed to mark the beginning of the end of comic-book movies’ reign at the box office. The one glimmer of hope that the film offered was the introduction of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, who was miraculously the most interesting hero in a movie that also starred Batman and Wonder Woman.
After a year of no DC releases, the company bounced back with Aquaman’s self-titled solo movie in December 2018. The film was met with middling reviews and didn’t perform particularly well in the United States––especially compared to the cultural phenomenon of 2017’s “Wonder Woman.” Then why was “Aquaman” such a massive success? The film’s financial triumph is perhaps best summarized by the opening lines of “Ocean to Ocean,” Pitbull’s contribution to the soundtrack, where he states that “from ocean to ocean, they gon’ have to deal with me.” Indeed, from ocean to ocean, moviegoers loved “Aquaman,” as international audiences propelled “Aquaman” past a billion dollars worldwide, making it the DCEU’s biggest financial hit yet. The film beat “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” and is only $8 million away from overtaking Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”––which predates the company’s Extended Universe––to become the biggest DC movie of all time.
What made “Aquaman” so successful? One of the most likely explanations is the excellent timing of its release. Every previous DC film came out during an overcrowded summer season, giving them more competition and less long-term dominance. “Aquaman,” on the other hand, was released at the end of December, in the first winter season without a “Star Wars” film since 2014. The lack of post-Christmas releases allowed the film to dominate for weeks after its release. Additionally, director James Wan is DC’s most internationally-savvy filmmaker, who proved his appeal to overseas audiences with 2015’s “Furious 7.”
The more likely explanation for the film’s success, though, is its quality. “Aquaman” is easily one of DC’s most entertaining movies, rivaled only by “Wonder Woman” in its thrills. Wan demonstrates his outstanding worldbuilding ability through the splendor of Atlantis, which is up there with Pandora from “Avatar” and Wakanda from “Black Panther” among the decade’s most memorable cinematic settings. The movie is technically outstanding––the special effects are breathtaking, outside of a few noticeable green screen backdrops and a jarringly wonky de-aging effect on Temuera Morrison. It’s a wonder that the film’s special effects team wasn’t even considered for an Academy Award. There’s also innovative underwater sound design, joyfully colorful costumes, and above-average cinematography. The action is also superb, and combines the best action elements of other beloved films. It has trident duels akin to the swashbuckling swordplay in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” underwater dogfights that evoke the spaceship chases of “Star Wars,” and massive-scale battles straight out of “Lord of the Rings.”
The plot of “Aquaman” is relatively simple, but it’s incredibly fun: a half-human, half-Atlantean drifter reluctantly embarks on a treasure hunt to prevent his half-brother from sparking a war between the underwater kingdoms and the surface dwellers. It may not be as thematically rich as “Black Panther” or as symbolically significant as “Wonder Woman,” but it also isn’t a mindless, emotionless rollercoaster. The dialogue is cheesy, and the lead actors might not be entirely convincing to everyone, but “Aquaman” has some meaningful, if subtle, messages to convey.
There’s some legitimate commentary on the way humans treat the environment, delivered through the mouthpiece of the film’s antagonist, Orm. Played by Patrick Wilson, Orm is the most compelling DC villain since Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. As the ruler of an undersea kingdom, he is furious with land-dwelling society for carelessly contaminating the oceans and destroying the beautiful life that they contain. Orm wants to wage war against human civilization, and while his tactics aren’t the most ethical, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. Additionally, there’s power in the symbolism of Arthur Curry, a biracial character portrayed by multiethnic actor Jason Momoa, being the hero to unify two diametrically opposed societies. “Aquaman” is ultimately one of DC’s most entertaining films, and is definitely worth watching for fans of superheroes, treasure hunts, and even marine biology.