[This story was originally published on January 9, 2019. In the light of the critical acclaim surrounding Shazam!, we thought it was worth a second look today.]
So I finally caught Aquaman the other night, the worldwide phenomenon that’s already Warner Bros.’ top DC Comics Extended Universe earner worldwide.
It’s even eclipsed the highest foreign total for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, but more on that later.
Seeing it after the public has responded with their verdict is for me an unusual point of view (hell, I liked Batman v Superman before the Internet hated it). But going in with certain knowledge afforded me the opportunity to try to pay special attention to considering reasons why the film has resonated so strongly with foreign audiences, not limited to, but particularly with Chinese moviegoers (almost $300m to date).
Sure, the Australian-raised director James Wan’s Malaysian Chinese descent could be a factor for its strength in Asian markets like China. But I suspect Wan’s involvement in, and possible influence by, another breakout hit in China is more likely where answers may lie … and may light the path for Warner Bros. future for the DCEU.
Wan directed 2015’s Furious 7, of course the seventh installment of Universal‘s tentpole franchise about fast cars, crazy stunts, and ... wait for it ... family.
Did you know the Fast & Furious franchise is about family?
Seriously, it’s about family.
While successful in the United States, the Fast & Furious films are especially successful overseas and in China, with the last two installments each totaling over $1 billion in overseas box office alone (over $780m combined in China) and foreign receipts accounting for over 70% of the worldwide total of the entire series.
Like in the Furious series, with Aquaman Wan seems to have left behind any intent to ground the superhero action with the real world. While Furious has cars, Aquaman is wall-to-wall what Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool would call ‘superhero landings,’ making it not unlike Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (Warners' other breakout DC hit) in that respect.
But it’s not just about the landings and the poses, of which there are many. Those are just symbolic expressions of the over-the-top sensibility Aquaman fully embraced.
Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry would, in fact, be right at home in a Fast & Furious film, so much so I double-checked to see if Momoa had ever appeared in the series.
(No, he hasn’t. Not yet, anyway.)
Not unlike Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, Aquaman is a stoic, everyman tough guy with a code - the code of having a super-soft spot for his extended family.
And Aquaman isn’t just about family, which of course it very much is - it’s also mixtape of black & white heroism and villainy, excessive action, and unabashed sentimentality bordering on the outright corny.
And that isn’t a criticism, but an observation.
Marvel Studios would never try to pull off Aquaman’s last 10 minutes of teary, family healing time. Christopher Nolan didn’t try - Bruce and Alfred made up in The Dark Knight Rises in a silent and subtle manner. Whatever Zack Snyder and then Joss Whedon tried to pull off with BvS and Justice League in terms of forming friendships and bonds ("Martha!"), it wasn’t that.
And like those movies about fast cars and family, that may be Aquaman’s secret sauce overseas - combining over-the-top heroism with equally over-the-top sentimentality.
Warners' categorical successes and failures so far have partly been a product of not yet identifying a house brand. A Marvel Studios movie feels like an Marvel Studios even, even with some differences in tone.
The next DCEU installment - April’s Shazam! - seems like it was built in a lab to mash-up superhero landings and sentimentality with the everyman tip.
The soon-to-start-production Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) also seems ripe to emphasize the relationships of the leads with a feminist slant. Suicide Squad, which attempted to bond a team of criminals in an afternoon, dipped into those waters (pun not intended) which is maybe a partial explanation as to why the film was more successful than it maybe deserved to be.
The point is if Warner Bros. continues to see success with this formula … that brand ... there is one logical place it leads…
The studio probably has to retire the radioactive Justice League branding for a while. And although there doesn’t seem to be any current inclination to get the band back together, if and when they do a perfect solution exists …
Yes, make it a Super Friends movie.
I mean, how close to “Super Family” can you possibly get?
Embrace it, Warner Bros. Own it. Sure it’s “corny,” sure its origins are on Saturday morning, but it also plainly says in a two words what audiences are embracing in Aquaman. It’s what the Fast & Furious franchise is about with cars being swapped out for capes.
So enough with Superman’s brooding. Enough with Batman and Wonder Woman’s awkward flirting. Build a Hall of Justice. Give Bruce’s big round table more than six chairs. Invite Shazam. Extend invitations to Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Black Canary, the Atom, and Hawkman. Mera is, of course, welcome too.
Forget about having to justify their existence because the world needs them. Just let them be family first and universe-savers second.
Let them hug, let the guys shed manly single tears, let them kiss, let them bond. Let them talk about friendship and family ... like all the time.
And oh, let them all have lots and lots of superhero landings.