Every time Warner Bros. releases a new Justice League adventure, it’s become de rigueur to ask what the film’s box office results mean for the studio’s on-going attempts to fashion together a Marvel alternative. It may be frustrating for the powers that be at DC, but it’s a valid question to raise given the comic book brand’s inconsistent track record. “Wonder Woman” was a promising step in the right direction as Patty Jenkins’ take on the Amazonian warrior became the rare DC entry to score critical acclaim and robust ticket sales to match. This time, it was up to “Aquaman” director James Wan to prove Princess Diana was no fluke.
Audiences, for the most part, seem receptive to Jason Momoa’s sinewy leader. Bolstered by decent reviews, the superhero adventure topped the box office in North America, racking up $72 million over its first three days, including previews. It’s not an overwhelmingly impressive Stateside start compared to his Spandexed cohort “Wonder Woman,” which picked up $103 million during its first weekend. Even critically excoriated entries such as “Justice League” ($93 million) and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” ($166 million) were able to pull off better debuts.
Still, “Aquaman’s” $72 million bow comes with a few of caveats. The Atlantean king isn’t as high-profile as, say Batman or Superman, so it’s not surprising he couldn’t match their commercial results. Moreover, December traditionally fields smaller opening weekends that can lead to long runs at the box office as moviegoers have time off between Christmas and New Year’s. That puts Warner Bros. in a good position to recoup “Aquaman’s” $200 million budget. When looking at end-of-the-year releases, “Aquaman” actually ranks among the best launches for anything not set in the “Star Wars” universe. It has a long and potentially lucrative holiday corridor ahead to build the kind of buzz it needs to turn a profit.
Like most tentpoles, domestic numbers only tell half the story. With just a few offshore markets left to open, the muscular king seems to be resonating abroad in a big way. “Aquaman” hit theaters in China two weeks ahead of its U.S. debut and has since generated $410 million internationally, bringing its global tally to $483 million. It has already surpassed the entire international gross of “Wonder Woman,” which ended its theatrical run with $409 million.
“‘Aquaman’ is a step in the right direction when you’re talking about global enterprising,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They’re making films that audiences around the world want to see.”
You don’t have to look much past the studs in the green-and-orange suit to see why “Aquaman” has struck a chord among fanboys and fangirls. Momoa embodies his character in a way that Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill were never quite able to pull off while portraying the latest iterations of Batman and Superman. The Hawaiian actor leaned into Aquaman’s backstory, even performing a ceremonial haka dance on the press circuit and at the movie’s premiere. Unlike, say, the morose Affleck, Momoa seemed to be getting a kick out of his promotional duties.
“It’s a big deal to have an actor that really fits into the spandex,” Bock said. “That’s the key — really stamping in and making that role your own.”
The Atlantean setting also meant that Wan could abandon the dreary color palates from “Justice League” and “Batman v Superman” and instead lean into dazzling visual affects to portray the film’s mythical underworld. Audiences didn’t just show up to see the movie, they responded well to the on-screen action. “Aquaman’s” CinemaScore of A- is the second best result for any DC film in the post-Christopher Nolan era, second only to “Wonder Woman.”
The film’s humorous tone suggests that the DC Universe finally took a page from Marvel’s lighthearted approach to masked Avengers’ movies. If some painfully cheesy jokes are the price moviegoers have to pay for hero with some personality, it’s one well worth paying. It’s also promising when looking at the future of DC. Cavill appears to be hanging up his red cape, and it’s unlikely that Affleck will get another call to play the Caped Crusader, but the momentum behind “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” signals that the Justice League might look a little different in years to come. Ezra Miller’s The Flash and Zachary Levi’s Shazam, both of whom are getting standalone features of their own, could join that company and see some more time in the spotlight.
DC has also cleaned house at the executive level. Over the past year, the studio ousted Jon Berg and Geoff Johns, the two men tasked with crafting cinematic adventures out of DC lore, after the duo failed to deliver quality films, and replaced them with veteran producer Walter Hamada. DC also pushed out Diane Nelson, the former president of DC Entertainment and consumer products, as part of a wider shake-up aimed at righting a ship that had veered dangerously off course. “Aquaman’s” success bodes well for Hamada, who must now figure out what parts of the DC cinematic universe are working and which elements must be jettisoned. He also has the trust of Warner Bros. studio chief Toby Emmerich, something his predecessors appeared to have lost.
There was a lot riding on “Aquaman,” and not just in terms of boosting his DC comrades. This December marked the first time since 2014 without a “Star Wars” movie to propel ticket sales, and that meant Hollywood was counting on a galaxy not so far away to coax audiences into theaters and prevent dwindling attendance. The challenge wasn’t lost on Warner Bros.’ head of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein.
“Was I concerned? You bet. Was I nervous? You bet. We had to take a bold move, and we believed in James and Jason,” Goldstein said. “When you look at this film on its own, we knew we had something special.”
Brent Lang contributed to this article.