There’s no doubting that the DCEU — Warner Bros’ supposed contender to Marvel’s utter dominance of the superhero movie genre — is in trouble. They had a good thing with Superman in the 70s. They had a good thing with Batman in the 80s. And, after a few false starts in the 90s, they emerged as the gold-standard of the increasingly centric superhero movies of the early 2000s with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: movies that reinvented the genre for the new millennium and whose exclusion from the Oscars forced the Academy to broaden the Best Picture category from a scant five to an inclusive ten thereafter.
I recent years, however, the brand has been in an unmitigated freefall as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to recreate the entire genre in its own image. First Man of Steel (2013) deeply divided the fanbase following the controversial decision to have its titular hero, canonically sworn to never take a life, snaps the neck of his arch nemesis at the height of their climactic showdown. This only got worse in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) when they repositioned Batman as a psychopathic vigilante more intent on gunning down petty criminals than making Gotham a safer place to live. And somehow, despite the new low that that movie represented for DC adaptations, Suicide Squad (2016) lowered the bar even further by being the single worst film to be released by a major studio that year.
But just when, for many, the DCEU had been written off in its entirety, the magnanimous Wonder Woman (2017) came around and delivered one of the best moviegoing experiences of last year. And despite all the endless troubles it faced in production, Justice League (2017) wasn’t nearly as bad as it should have been. Don’t get me wrong: it was terrible. But it was just terrible — regular terrible — and was actually much better than most of the other movies in its franchise (despite, mind you, being so terrible in the first place).
By all rights, this should have been the end of the DCEU: a failed experiment that never quite manifested in any kind of a watchable form. Talk immediately surfaced that the long-promised Flash solo movie was going to be an adaptation of the Flashpoint comic storyline which, like X-Men’s Days of Future Past, promised to be a quick-and-dirty way to quietly reboot the franchise while keeping just the elements that worked in it the first time around (basically everything Wonder Woman and maybe a few of the already-cast actors). A number of different Joker-centered spinoffs were announced, none of which would be in-continuity with the existing DCEU movies and each of which would cast a different Clown Prince of Crime.
All that was left for the franchise was for the already-in-production films to spin their wheels best as they could in the meantime: counting down until the inevitable reboot came and hopefully not losing too much money in the meantime. Hell, Warner Bros didn’t even bother to move Aquaman (2017) out of its crowded release spot — sandwiched between Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018), on a date it shared with Bumblebee (2018), indicating a certain lack of faith in the project that you would expect out of a tentpole placeholder like this had become.
And yet, even from its advertising, Aquaman felt different. It was bright and colorful and actually fun-looking for a change. James Wan appeared to have had an unconscionable amount of creative control for a big-budget studio project like this and it showed through in every frame of its trailers. Jason Momoa didn’t look like some beefed-up jock that got lost in a play rehearsal on his way to football practice, but an actual, tangible presence in his own film. I short, it looked like, if not a good movie, than at least a watchable one: same as any number of similar blockbusters that I’ve enjoyed over the course of 2018. And coupled with the similarly fun-looking Shazam! (2019), it looked like DC actually managed to right its sinking ship without the need for a reboot at all.
What’s more, however, is that early word of mouth is actually fairly positive for this movie, all things considered. It’s currently sporting a 69% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, which indicates that, while not every critic loved it, a broad consensus of them at least liked it. Its critical consensus reflects this, posting that “Aquaman swims with its entertainingly ludicrous tide, offering up CGI superhero spectacle that delivers energetic action with an emphasis on good old-fashioned fun.” In fact, many critics favorably compare the movie to Thor (2011) in the exact same way that Wonder Woman (2017) reviews favorably compared that movie to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): a narratively solid origin story that is both fun and fascinating to watch unfold on screen, warts and all.
That being said, however, is that it looks like that’s all we’re actually in for: a good time on par with Marvel’s Phase 1 of movies. Individual reviews, though often quite positive, are usually more middling than its fresh-rating would otherwise suggest. Going off of the adage of “aim small, miss small,” Aquaman appears to be a movie of little ambitions that ultimately pay out only as much as it put into its production in the first place. So while the film might evoke the Thor franchise, it is likely only in the sense of the foundational first film and not the next-level sequel Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
I keenly look forward to seeing the new film in action, but I still have my doubts. Even if it is on par with the early Marvel movies, I will be exuberantly happy with that. After all, all anybody wants out of these movies is to finally watch good DC films again. Hopefully this joyous initial response isn’t just due to low expectations, however. Hopefully the movie will stand tall on its own terms. And, really, that’s probably the best that we can hope for from a DC movie at this point.
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