Almost every DC Comics movie released in the last five or six years has done so with baggage attached that can’t help but talked about. In many cases, said baggage helps inform why the film is what it is, but in other cases, it gets in the way of what makes an individual film rise or fall despite a game effort from all involved in production.
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So it goes with Aquaman: released December 21, 2018, this was the first movie to follow the 2017 version of Justice League, and starting from that film’s conception of Jason Momoa’s title character as a pissed-off biker that felt like it was drawing on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Even with acclaimed horror director James Wan at the helm, it wasn’t entirely clear what kind of movie this would end up being, but the answer eventually became…a mess. Back then, and especially now, Aquaman is a chaotic thing that feels like it would’ve been better suited as a summer blockbuster rather than one of the last big films of 2018. At the same time, that it is a mess is what makes it so fun to watch—how often does a superhero movie swing for the fences quite like this, and right from the jump rather than in fits and starts?
That Aquaman was so openly nutty and colorfully earnest made it a standout compared to other live-action films in the genre back then, and that formula still works now. In its best moments, it’s the kind of gonzo movie that doesn’t always get made anymore in live-action, and honestly might not again save for an occasional spurt of madness. It takes some considerable skill on Wan’s part to start with a love story set to Sigur Rós before transitioning to an octopus playing the drums ahead of a duel to the death between brothers in an undersea kingdom. (The actual final duel between Aquaman and Orm plays out like the most well-choreographed Injustice 2 match you’re likely to ever see.) But goofy as it is most of the time, it’s very clear everyone involved is taking everything seriously. The film works because the cast is so game for everything, and Momoa’s presence lends some extra edge to this Arthur and what it means for him to be a biracial person in this world.
The original Aquaman ended up with $1.152 billion in 2018, making it the highest-grossing movie starring a DC character. (China, which got it two weeks before everyone else, really took a shine to it.) Before then, you wouldn’t have expected a solo movie starring this character to reach that milestone—the last DC movie to do so was Dark Knight Rises all the way back in 2012. The movies that followed, like Birds of Prey in 2020 and The Suicide Squad in 2021, made it seem like the DCEU had managed to turn itself around, or at the very least find comfort in being more director-driven than its direct competitor.
But this was not to last: once Warner Bros. Discovery hired James Gunn to be the creative spearhead for DC’s next stab at MCU success and grandiosity, something had to give for the DCEU movies that were yet to cross the finish line. There’ve been four DC theatrical releases this year, and nearly all of them have been met with tepid reception and released with an air of awkwardness about them. (Blue Beetle’s fared the best of these, and though its universe connections have been explained a few times, it still feels like it’s on a “wait and see” basis.) As the final final DCEU movie, this weekend’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has another elephant or two in the room it doesn’t want to acknowledge due to its allegedly messy production and Momoa outright saying ahead of release this is the end of the wet road for his aquatic hero.
At time of writing, I haven’t seen Lost Kingdom, and I’m honestly not even sure I’ll make the time to watch it in theaters. This isn’t the first juggernaut movie to have a sequel frontloaded with unfair, inescapable baggage—how ya doing, The Marvels and Wakanda Forever?—but this is easily one of the more muted swan songs to a character that ended up being surprisingly well suited to boisterous bombast. But you can’t say it’s not tragically fitting for Aquaman and the DCEU at large to go out with a whimper after promising it was going to have banger after banger.
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