It’s official, Aquaman is the biggest hit for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) or the Worlds of DC. The newest superhero film released by Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment has proven so successful that it has joined the lucrative billion dollar club as of this weekend. Aquaman’s success could not have come at a better time for DC and Warner Bros. as the film studio desperately needed to have a genuine supehero hit film given all the headaches they’ve had with the DCEU lately.
The DCEU has always had an uneven existence with films that either polarized audiences or just left everyone unimpressed. For every Wonder Woman there was a Suicide Squad. The DCEU was supposed to be a viable competitor to the far more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but that did not turn out to be. For the most part, Warner Bros. was to blame with the way they micromanaged the DCEU films and their directors and never gave the people running the film universe the chance to organically develop it. In their rush to compete with the MCU, many of the DCEU films felt like rushed trailers for subsequent films. This all came to a head with Justice League last year. What was supposed to be DC’s answer to The Avengers was poorly received and flopped in theaters.
Adding to the woes were all the behind-the-scenes headaches that have been covered before such as the inability to create a proper sequel to Man of Steel, the drama of whether or not Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill would reprise their roles of Batman and Superman. Films were announced and shelved. Directors and writers came aboard for films only to depart soon afterwards.
After the failure of Justice League, not many had hope for Aquaman. After all, he was not a popular superhero and was often derided by many for being so underwhelming. His appearances in previous DCEU movies redefined the character into more of a fun-loving surfer dude type, but this did not inspire confidence that he could carry a film. Thankfully, many of us were proven wrong.
An Underwater Spectacle
Aquaman turned out to be a fun, exciting and spectacular film that just went for broke. It is outrageous with its imagery and the film created a stunning underwater world that is so richly detailed and colorful that it evokes films like Avatar or the Star War films. As with the latter films, Aquaman is one exhaustive film that constantly moves in terms of plot and action. Some parts of it, especially the scenes in Italy, recall the brisk pace of the Indiana Jones films. Much of this credit goes to director James Wan who injected needed levity and adventure to the DCEU and people reacted positively to Aquaman.
Of course, the film can be silly and goofy but it is never dull. On top of that the natural charms of the leads Jason Mamoa and Amber Heard helped sell the film to wide audiences. What also helped was the timing of its release. Unlike previous Holiday seasons, there was no Star Wars film to compete with. Audiences who are weary from all the sour news of the world want escapism and fun in their films. And Aquaman delivered that to them.
Finally, it seemed as if Warner Bros. left Wan and the other filmmakers alone and didn’t try to inject the greater DCEU to Aquaman. Aside from two references, this film could stand apart from the DCEU, and it helped since this allowed the characters to have the spotlight to themselves and for the film’s story to develop naturally. Does this mean this formula will work for future DCEU films? It’s possible, just think about it, Aquaman followed the same path of the early MCU films in that they were largely standalone affairs with lesser known characters that won over audiences. By the time the MCU expanded into team up films, people were invested in the characters. This does not mean this standalone formula will work with every film. But for now a loose affiliation with the DCEU may be the key…for now.
This past week the news involving the two big superhero film universes perfectly illustrated their states. For the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) it seems clear that they can do no wrong. This is based solely on the astronomic success of its latest film Black Panther. Meanwhile, over at the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), the woes continues with the latest news that Joss Whedon is no longer involved with a proposed Batgirl film.
So why are the states of both cinematic universes so vastly different? Both have popular superheroes and their films have tremendous talent creating the films. But why is the MCU so popular while the DCEU is looking more and more like the JV squad? Well, it’s not easy to pinpoint the success and failures of both universes but there are some factors. Let’s go over them.
One advantage Marvel Studios and the MCU had over Warner Bros. and DC was simply a head start. The MCU began in earnest ten years ago with Iron Man. That film featured a well known, but not very popular, superhero. Marvel Studios did not have the luxury of having their early films star Marvel Comics’ headliners like Spider-Man and the X-Men. With this handicap, Marvel Studios was forced to focus on the character of Iron Man and it worked. But that was not all, at the end of the film, there was the famous Nick Fury tease that signaled the existence in the film of a larger universe. This excited fans and set the groundwork for a viable cinematic universe.
Each film in the MCU has organic (usually) references to other Marvel properties that helped create excitement for future films even if the current one was a disappointment. It also helped that each film in the MCU is distinctly different (for the most part) from the other. They ranged from standard science-based superhero yarns (the Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk), political thrillers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), period pieces (Captain America: The First Avenger), Star Wars-like space adventures (Guardians of the Galaxy), quirky, comical heist capers (Ant-Man), supernatural tales (Doctor Strange), stories set in fantastic locations (the Thor films), cultural milestones (Black Panther), and good ol’ superhero epics (the Avengers films). By being so versatile the MCU never seems to run out steam or stories to tell. Granted, the films have their faults like subpar villains, which are just dark versions of the main heroes, but the focus on character and stories made the MCU so successful.
There is also one other important factor that the MCU has and that is Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios and the filmmaking version of Phil Jackson. He masterfully and carefully guided each film to tremendous success. His vision for the MCU and ability to carry it out is a big reason for the upbeat state of the MCU. Will they falter? Of course, in fact, the MCU has had some genuine stinkers like Iron Man 2, but it has been able to quickly recover. Right now, Marvel is on a hot streak that has been going on for several years now and the future looks terrific with upcoming and hotly awaited films like Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel and of course a sequel to Black Panther. Hopefully this streak will last for years to come.
This was not how things were supposed to turn out for Warner Bros. and DC. Justice League, the culmination of the studio’s version of their own shared cinematic universe, is not getting the reception they were expecting. The film’s main selling point was the fact that it featured the long-awaited teamup of DC Comics’ greatest superheroes, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. However, its opening weekend take was only $94 million, the lowest for any film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It’s being ravaged by critics and it’s not drawing in the numbers it should be. Now, Justice League’s weak performance brings up a very important question, where does the DCEU go from here?
DCEU’s Uncertain Status
It is foolish to think plans for the DCEU will continue as if anything is wrong. Something has to change. Surely, Warner Bros. executives are taking a long, hard look at their superhero franchise and determining how viable it is. Expect announced films to be canceled, new personnel, and other radical changes to the DCEU, including a reboot.
The DCEU will not suddenly go away. Right now, Aquaman has finished filming and is slated for next year. Then a sequel for the successful Wonder Woman will certainly be made given Wonder Woman is the DCEU’s biggest hit. A Shazam film is also slated to begin filming next year to join the Wonder Woman sequel for release in 2019.
After that things get murky. There will be a Batman solo film directed by Matt Reeves, but that has been mired in controversy. Originally, Ben Affleck was to direct and star in The Batman, but the actor/director has had a falling out with Warner Bros. and first it was announced that he would only star in The Batman. That began the Internet rumblings that he would vacate the role, which is too bad since he is quite good as Batman. Adding fuel to the fire are Affleck’s recent statements suggesting that he is ready to move on from the role. At this point, it may be easier for DC and Warner Bros. to set the film apart from the DCEU.
To date, there aren’t any solid plans to give Superman a sequel to Man of Steel and it’s unknown if it will ever happen. Henry Cavill, who portrays Superman, is contracted for one more film and it is possible that Warner Bros. and DC may just have him appear in someone else’s film before recasting the role. It is a shame because Cavill, like Affleck, has done an excellent job in portraying the superhero, but it is not the end of the world. As we saw with Spider-Man it is fairly easy to replace actors, though overall, it is regrettable that we may never see a full evolution of Superman into a beacon of hope as shown in the end of Justice League.
Other projects with uncertain fates include Batgirl, Gotham City Sirens, Green Lantern Corps, Cyborg and a Suicide Squad sequel. Given the problems Warner Bros. has had with its core superheroes it may be best to put those projects on hold so they can right their cinematic ship.
A Flashpoint To The Future
On a related note, a Flash solo film has been stuck in development hell for years as writers and directors join then leave the project. Most recently, the film is supposed to be an adaptation of the Flashpoint mini-series where the Flash time travels and resets the DC Universe. Using this storyline would give Warner Bros. a convenient way of rebooting the DCEU, but the story, with its alternate takes on characters and situations, sounds expensive and may go over the heads of casual viewers. It would be easier for the film studio to just do a hard reboot without any explanation. This has worked in the past for other franchises, and the one instance where time travel was used to reboot a franchise was Star Trek and it left fans with a bad taste.
One option for the studio is to repeat what happened with Wonder Woman. The solo film was set in the past and largely apart from the DCEU. Reportedly, the sequel will also take place in the past and this example could be a way to ease out of the DCEU. The same thing can be done with Aquaman and Shazam; remove references to the DCEU and focus on the characters. That is why Wonder Woman succeeded. Concentrate on solo films with little to no references to a larger universe and let the shared universe grow organically.