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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: January 8, 2019

January 8, 2019
3 min read time

After three weekends in theaters, Warner Bros.' colorful comic book adaptation Aquaman has earned $260 million at the domestic box office. Coupled with its $681 million in grosses overseas (it first opened in foreign markets), the film is all but guaranteed to reach a billion dollars within the next seven days. That must have Warner Bros. executives breathing a sigh of relief, considering it's the first film in the DC Extended Universe since the gargantuan disappointment that was 2017's Justice League, in which the fish-man played a central role.

Until Aquaman came along, the only film in the DCEU to be truly embraced was Wonder Woman (2017). The character also appeared in the messy Justice League.

Aquaman's global success puts Warner Bros. in an interesting position in terms of its shared comic book cinematic universe, and executives now have some difficult decisions to make about that universe's narrative future. Although Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016) all made reasonable coin, you'd be hard-pressed to find many people who admit to liking those films outside a vocal internet minority.

While official announcements have yet to be made regarding the roles, it's looking increasingly unlikely that Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill will return to play Batman and Superman, respectively.

An Aquaman sequel seems assured, a Wonder Woman follow-up has already been shot and Margot Robbie's Suicide Squad spin-off Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is full steam ahead. But Bats and Supey are the true lynchpins of the DC Comics roster of characters.

Work is said to be progressing on Matt Reeves' The Batman, but nobody can seem to agree on whether that will be a standalone film, or part of the larger DCEU. Where Shazam! (scheduled for release in April) fits into all this remains to be seen.

DC has always had more recognizable characters than their chief rival Marvel, which has always told better stories with lesser-known intellectual property. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a picture of narrative cohesion and planning for the future, the DCEU now has an almost equal number of successes and (relative) failures from which it must pick and choose going forward.

But if DC/Warner Bros. has shown anything — especially in their small-screen offerings — it's that it's never too late to course correct and start over with certain characters, regardless of what those characters' peers are up to. They're not as devoted to a sustained cinematic continuity as Marvel, and they probably can't afford to be.

If nothing else, Aquaman's success has shown that DCEU's past failures need not define their future.

The major storytelling takeaway from the film is that you can go full-on ridiculous and the audience will follow if you commit to that ridiculousness. Aquaman is a giant, crazy movie that balances an expansive mythology and a surfeit of insane set-pieces. One has to credit director James Wan, who also made a similar degree of cinematic craziness work in 2015's Furious 7, a film that managed to convey a huge amount of emotional pathos amid the nuttiest car action set-pieces ever seen.

Aquaman similarly embraces over-the-top action without forgoing key character development. Making these elements work together is a rare skill in modern blockbuster entertainment, and every studio in town will surely be clamoring to work with Wan.

The contributions of screenwriters Will Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick should of course not be overlooked. Wan takes a story credit on the film alongside Beall and former Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment (and respected comic book writer) Geoff Johns.

All parties should be proud of how something that must've seemed pretty nuts on the page comes together so successfully on-screen.

Aquaman's success is also encouraging on the storytelling front because it demonstrates that the Marvel method isn't the only path to comic book success on the big screen.

The other main noteworthy result from the weekend box office is the surprise success of Columbia's horror Escape Room, which earned $18 million to give it second place, ahead of Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, which is in its third weekend. The takeaway is that moderately-budgeted, easily-marketable concept horrors are always effective counter-programming during the holidays, and that teenagers will always enjoy seeing other teenagers come to convolutedly-violent (even if PG-13-friendly) ends.

The plot (an escape room amusement gets deadly) was clearly conveyed in the title and audiences responded, despite that already two films with the exact same concept and title were released straight to VOD platforms last year.

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