Lessons DC Can Learn From Aquaman’s Billion-Dollar Success

Amber Heard and Jason Momoa in Aquaman. Photo: Warner Bros.

Aquaman has swum its way into a rarefied body of water, crossing the billion-dollar mark in worldwide box-office tallies over the weekend. Since arriving on screens in late December, the James Wan–directed comic-book adaptation has hauled in $287.8 million domestically and a robust $733.6 million overseas to become the first DC Entertainment superhero movie to reach the nine-figure milestone since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. “BILLION DOLLAR UNDERDOG,” star Jason Momoa wrote on Instagram Sunday, adding a shout-out to his days as a beefcake TV star: “From Baywatch to making what once was the most disrespected superhero into a billion dollar movie.”

That gross arrives as a major triumph for Warner Bros. and DC, whose cinematic superhero universe has struggled to match the reliable blockbuster returns of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which boasts six films to earn more than a billion dollars theatrically). Moreover, as Momoa’s social-media posting indicates, the project also reached theaters with no small amount of cultural baggage. In the second season of HBO’s Entourage, for example, Adrian Grenier’s up-and-coming movie-star character Vincent Chase must grapple with the career-killing implications of accepting a starring role in a fictional adaptation of Aquaman directed by James Cameron.

Entourage showrunner Doug Ellin freely admits selecting the Aquatic Ace for the superhero’s comedic potential. “I thought Aquaman sounded like the most ridiculous movie in the world and, to me, the only way to make it work was if James Cameron was directing it,” Ellin told EW. “I’m not a big comic book or superhero person, but it just seemed very silly.” (On the show in 2006, Aquaman sets a box-office record, earning $116 million over its opening weekend.)

Now, the underwater adventure becomes just the third DC Extended Universe movie — after The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan’s 2008 Batman installment The Dark Knight — to join the Three Commas Club. So what are DC’s takeaways? What can it learn from the film’s success?

Foreign Moviegoers Matter More Than Ever
A staggering 70 percent of Aquaman’s revenues came from countries outside the U.S., including Taiwan, Russia, the U.K., Mexico, and Brazil. In China alone, the film grossed $285 million. For a few years now, the received wisdom here is that even a middling domestic performance can be dramatically offset if viewers are loving the movie overseas. And positioning an event movie like Aquaman for a global audience has huge upsides.

DC’s Lugubrious Superhero Movies Don’t Sell As Well As Its Fun Ones
2017’s Wonder Woman was viewed as a commercial and critical triumph, winding up on many year-end lists for combining “genre elements into something reasonably fresh, touching and fun,” as the New York Times opined in its review. Meanwhile, DC Universe films such as Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad faced criticism for being too downbeat, too somber, too self-serious. And both films, as a consequence, underperformed theatrically. Contrast that with the Skittles-hued Aquaman, an origin story surged with underwater action and fanciful settings — an aesthetic the DCEU seems to be embracing going forward if its trailers for the action-comedy Shazam! are any indication. So in a nutshell, DC’s fun films made more money than expected, and its dark ones earned less.

D-List Heroes Can Be Big Business
Rolling Stone proclaims Aquaman the “laughing stock of the DC Comics Extended Universe.” Which is a bit harsh. But to be sure, compared to other iconic heroes in the DC canon — Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman — a trident-wielding underwater titan who can swim really well and communicate with marine life carries more than a whiff of ridiculousness. Nevertheless, the King of the Seven Seas has outperformed them all (Wonder Woman being the runner up with $821.8 million in worldwide ticket sales). And as the blockbuster success of fellow D-list hero Iron Man established 11 years ago, the right intellectual property in the right filmmaker’s hands can still mint money at the box office.

“Firstly, massive LOVE and THANK YOU to the fans and audiences around the world,” Wan said in a statement. “I’ll forever be indebted to Jason for turning Aquaman into one of the coolest, cinematic superheroes ever, and becoming the gold standard for this character for generations to come.”

Lessons DC Can Learn From Aquaman’s Billion-Dollar Success