It's been a few weeks now since Aquaman released in theaters and it is no longer up for debate: Aquaman is a smash hit. After a modest (by superhero movie standards) opening weekend of $67.8 million, James Wan's film has gone on to make over $266.4 million domestically and is racing towards $1 billion with $963.3 million. That makes Aquaman the DCEU's most successful film to date from a total box office standpoint by a pretty sizable margin.
I'm interested not in the dollars and cents specifically, but the reasons why people were willing to pay them to see this film when the last DCEU film featuring Aquaman and a bunch of other heroes found so many wallets tightly gripped. What was so appealing about this film and this character? There probably isn't a single answer to this question, but here are some solid reasons.
It's difficult to know how exactly how much influence critical reviews have on a film's box office because countless well-reviewed indies make no money and the Transformers franchise (sans Bumblebee) does well despite critical drubbings. Nevertheless, good reviews certainly can't hurt.
Aquaman wasn't exactly a critical darling, but its reviews were more positive overall than any DCEU film before it with the exception of Wonder Woman. The film's solid reviews were good enough to get it to fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the only DCEU film to do so besides the aforementioned Amazonian's tale. Good reviews may have given audiences the confidence that paying for a ticket to Aquaman would be money well spent and it wasn't quite the risk that a film with lesser reviews would be.
This all adds up to a environment where Aquaman had good word of mouth and the conversation surrounding it among critics and fans, while perhaps not gushing, was positive enough that people figured they would have a good time with this film and were willing to pony up for a ticket.
If Wonder Woman and the hodge podge of Justice League marked the beginnings of the DCEU's tonal shift away from the Snyderian darkness, Aquaman is its completion. Whether Zack Snyder's dark and gritty tone was the problem with his DCEU films and why they didn't live up to commercial expectations is a conversation for another day (personally, I don't think tone was the issue), but it is clear that Aquaman, is far more successful than those films.
Aquaman is bright, colorful, fun, cheesy and very comic-booky. He even wears the orange suit. It is about as far away from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as you can get. In a fish out of water scene that has the brightly lit aesthetic of a romantic comedy, Mera eats a flower for goodness sake. Audiences not looking for the seriousness of Dawn of Justice should have found plenty to like with Aquaman's silliness.
It may not be a masterpiece, but Aquaman is a fun and entertaining movie, and embracing that tone worked in its favor to get audiences into the theater where they had a good time. Aquaman is also a visual spectacle with a fully realized underwater world replete with strange creatures and characters. This movie is pure eye candy and thus is the kind of film that people want to see on the big screen.
The ever-growing international box office has proven that it appreciates spectacle even more than its domestic counterparts, and views blockbusters with a far less critical eye. It's no coincidence that this film's box office is so heavily weighted towards its overseas returns.
It is difficult to know exactly how big of a star Jason Momoa is. He's been around for a while, but it's not like his role on Stargate: Atlantis made him a household name. His roles in DCEU films are far and away his most successful at the box office. The last time he was front and center in a blockbuster film was Conan the Barbarian in 2011, and that didn't turn out so well.
However, in addition to the other problems that doomed that movie (it wasn't good), I don't think Jason Momoa had nearly the same level of awareness among moviegoers that he does now. A lot of that awareness is due to his role as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones began in 2011, the same year as Conan the Barbarian released, and while it was an instant hit, it wasn't the cultural phenomenon it became over the ensuing years. If Conan had released a few years later once Game of Thrones really took over, the result might have been different. Sure Khal Drogo was only really in the first season of Game of Thrones, but the badass Dothraki warrior left a major impression, and it could be that now people were finally ready to see the actor who played him lead his own movie.
While Game of Thrones elevated Jason Momoa in the zeitgeist, Justice League also raised his profile. Perhaps audiences who may not have checked that movie out in theaters liked his part in it and were willing to pay a theatrical ticket price for a movie with him as the lead.
The way Warner Bros. initially went about the DCEU, it seemed that the studio didn't think that it had to put in the work of universe and character building that Marvel did with solo films, and could instead skip ahead to the big team up and start raking in the $1 billion box offices. But it turns out that giving characters their own solo origin films isn't a fruitless chore, and such films can actually be pretty successful.
Of course, there were audiences who liked Momoa's character in Justice League. And there were a lot of DCEU diehards who showed up to Aquaman, but I'm not sure they alone drove James Wan's film to the success it has had. It's possible there may have been audiences for whom Aquaman was one of, if not the only DCEU film they have seen.
One of the nice things about Aquaman is that it truly stands alone. It isn't fixated on universe building, setting up other films or cramming in references to other heroes and events in the DCEU. It is solely focused on Aquaman's story. Heck, if you want to get granular, there are even some plot holes and things that don't make sense in Aquaman for those that have seen Justice League.
Therefore, the barrier to entry was much lower for Aquaman than it was for something like Justice League. Neither in the film itself nor its marketing made it seem like you had to have seen Justice League or any of the previous DCEU films to enjoy Aquaman. I think that probably worked to its benefit.
We all know that the character of Aquaman was once a joke. We'd repeatedly see punchlines about a dude in an orange suit talking to fish, and it seemed like the closest he would ever get to a real movie was the fake James Cameron movie in Entourage. But when you are already the butt of everyone's jokes, there is nowhere to go but up.
Casting Jason Momoa was the start of changing perceptions around Aquaman, and putting him and Mera in Justice League whet people's appetites to see more of the mythology and history around them. Aquaman may have also benefited from the relative obscurity of the character.
We think that characters like the trinity of Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman have a built-in level of success because of their familiarity and name value, but that sword cuts both ways. There are also a lot of expectations conferred upon those characters due to that familiarity, and there is also the fact that any depiction will always draw countless comparisons, both favorable and negative, to those that came before. Aquaman isn't swimming against the current in that way.
He has no precedent on the big screen and most people don't know his story. That not only frees Aquaman from expectation, but makes his story seem fresh and new. Watching Aquaman battle his half-brother doesn't feel like thoroughly trodden ground in the way that seeing Bruce Wayne's parents murdered does. Despite being a joke in the past, audiences saw a character they knew little to nothing about, played by Khal Drogo, in a story they hadn't seen before. That combination may have made Aquaman quite appealing and we could see something similar work for Shazam!
We never really used to think of the holidays as blockbuster season, but the time for tentpoles is year-round now, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens proved that the end of the year can bring lots of good cheer at the box office. With Star Wars out of the picture in December of 2018, Aquaman was able to swoop in and capitalize on audiences looking for a special effects and action-filled blockbuster.
Aquaman did face some strong competition with the same idea, but Mary Poppins Returns appealed to a slightly different audience and Bumblebee didn't offer quite the spectacle of the mainline Transformers films, Star Wars or Aquaman. That positioned Aquaman nicely to make a killing for audiences that had grown accustomed to a big year-end blockbuster they could see with the family at the holidays.
It is clear that the holiday season is extremely fertile ground for blockbusters, making the decision to put Solo: A Star Wars Story in May look all the more misguided in hindsight. And while Aquaman had some competition release alongside it, it is enjoying a long runway into mid-January before it faces any new contenders to the box office throne.
There is also the fact that there a full year had passed since Justice League. That gave audiences, whether they loved or hated that film, plenty of time to get excited for another entry in the DCEU. That built up anticipation, combined with a premium holiday season release date, set Aquaman up to succeed.