This Christmas sees the release of Aquaman -- DC's epic story of a rugged underwater king, not a '90s throwback about some dude who loves "Barbie Girl." The much-hyped movie starring snow cone connoisseur Jason Momoa comes at an odd time for the DC Extended Universe. While Aquaman is ostensibly set in the same timeline as Man Of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and Justice League, you might have noticed that continuity seems to be hopelessly falling apart. Current cinematic Superman Henry Cavill was fired by Warner Bros., and Ben Affleck is more likely to return to the role of douchey Mallrats villain than the Caped Crusader. Fans still love Wonder Woman, but one character isn't enough to support a crumbling cinematic universe, right?
So in this perilous time for the franchise, the powers that be are letting it all ride on ... Aquaman? After three subpar movies failed at rejuvenating the two most famous superheroes in pop culture, Aquaman may very well decide the fate of the DC cinematic empire. Which is a little like putting the equipment manager into the big game after the quarterback is concussed.
After all, Aquaman doesn't exactly have the pedigree of Superman or Batman. His screen debut was a weird 1980s fan film. And after the success of Smallville, producers tried the same teen-friendly approach with Aquaman. Sadly, the pilot chronicling the adventures of "beach bum" A.C. Curry wasn't picked up.
Warner Bros. Television
The closest we've gotten to a big-budget Aquaman project was a non-superhero TV series. A Season 2 arc of Entourage (that show HBO made before wisely replacing bros with ice zombies) finds protagonist Vincent Chase starring in James Cameron's Aquaman. (And indeed, James Cameron would direct a damn Arby's commercial if it meant journeying into the ocean depths.) The studio pitches a "darker, grittier" movie, but because it's Aquaman, the costume still ends up looking like "underwater Elton John."
Aquaman was to suffer further indignities. He also showed up as the star of his own animated TV show, but less as a hero and more of a punchline. The Aquaman And Friends Action Hour found the titular hero hosting a terrible children's program. The show was only ever made available on Cartoon Network's Latin American website, for some reason.
That reason becomes clear pretty fast if you're brave enough to press play.
Has anyone ever considered making an actual Aquaman movie before now? Back in 2004, after Spider-Man and X-Men paved the way, there was talk about bringing Aquaman to the big screen. But rumor had it that the producers wanted to make a "goofy screwball comedy" because "he's such a stupid character."
So now DC has to turn a much-maligned character into the saving grace of their movie-verse ... which, when you think about it, is basically what Marvel once did. As we've discussed before, when it set out to build the MCU, Marvel had already sold off its A-list characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. So they instead had to rehabilitate C-listers like Thor (previously a gag in Adventures In Babysitting) and Iron Man (who most people thought was a robot). So by screwing up Batman and Superman so badly, DC has accidentally stumbled upon their competitor's winning formula: They're forced to try to make good movies with less popular characters.
Even the screenwriters of Avengers: Infinity War, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, suggested that this very tactic would work better for DC. When asked how to mend the DCEU, Markus said: "I would look at what Marvel did out of necessity ... Go through the vast world and go, 'That guy' or 'That girl,' and go, 'Let's just make a really good movie and not a universe and see what happens.'" Making movies with less iconic characters also gives filmmakers more freedom, in that audiences bring less baggage of expectations with them. Like, it's hard to imagine fans being bummed out if it was Klarion the Witch Boy who snapped a villain's neck.
Early positive reactions seemingly confirm that strategy's success, with audiences comparing James Wan's Aquaman to a "Phase 1 MCU film." Probably because it's more interesting to have new characters revealed through their own origin stories than through a thumb drive Batman stumbles upon.
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