WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for director James Wan's Aquaman, opening Friday nationwide.
Even before the abysmal 2017 release of Justice League, there were clear indications that Warner Bros.' DC Films banner was ready to turn its back on the notion of a cinematic universe tightly bound by continuity. It was one of the early lessons learned from the critical and commercial success of Wonder Woman, a first for the struggling DC Extended Universe. Executives appeared to waver as the long in-development Flash movie became Flashpoint, only to change back eight months later. But the premiere this weekend of Aquaman makes at least one thing clear: the DCEU we've known for the past five years is effectively dead.
While the vibrant colors, frequent humor and 1980s action-adventure influences go a long way to place distance between director James Wan's film and the dour tone Zack Snyder established for DC's superheroes, it's Aquaman's deliberate -- and almost total -- abandonment of ties to the larger universe that may truly set it apart.
Oh, sure, director Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman possessed only a tangential link to 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in the form of a photo of Diana and her World War I allies found by Bruce Wayne in Lex Luthor's metahuman files. But because the bulk of the film unfolds during the Great War, more overt connections were virtually impossible, if not nonsensical. Likewise, its 2019 sequel is set in 1984, presumably before the future Dark Knight even entered puberty.
Aside from flashbacks, to Arthur Curry's parents and to his childhood, and to Atlantis' ancient past, Aquaman takes place firmly after the events of Justice League. Yet, beyond a passing reference to Jason Momoa's hero helping in the fight against Steppenwolf, there's little indication of his previous cinematic appearance. Any viewer who goes into the film cold will quickly recognize that Arthur had earlier interactions with Mera (Amber Heard), and that "the Aquaman" has become increasingly, and publicly, active on the surface world. But that's all gleaned from context, not from any meaningful connections, or references, to Justice League.
Barely a year after Warner Bros. united Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg in a feature that was originally envisioned as a springboard for solo adventures, and a sequel, Justice League has been effectively forgotten. That's probably for the best.
Speaking last year about Wonder Woman, Geoff Johns, then president and chief creative officer of DC Entertainment, said, "The movie’s not about another movie, some of the movies do connect the characters together, like Justice League. But, like with Aquaman, our goal is not to connect Aquaman to every movie." Or, really, any movie, it turns out. With Freddy Freeman's collection of superhero memorabilia, Shazam! will have far more links to the larger superhero universe than Aquaman does. Let that sink in.
Aquaman effectively employs television news reports to convey its hero's growing celebrity and the extent of the devastation from the attack by King Orm (Patrick Wilson), and to introduce scientist/Atlantis conspiracy theorist Stephen Shin (Randall Park). That would have been a logical technique to weave in reference to the larger DCEU, with talking heads wondering why Superman or Wonder Woman hasn't responded to the tidal wave, or whether it's evidence of another alien invasion. However, Wan, and collaborators Johns, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, avoid that temptation for fan service, and for cheap-and-easy world-building. This is Aquaman's film -- OK, and Mera's -- and they keep the focus on him.
“We’ve seen him in other films, but I really wanted to tell a standalone story,” Wan recently said. “People ask me why. And I’m like: ‘Listen, you guys have so many movies to do with Superman and Batman and all that already. Let’s give this guy his time in the limelight. This is his opportunity. He’s never had the chance before. Let’s just let it be his film, and get that right. And maybe then we can have fun mixing him up with the other characters.”
If that wasn't clear enough, the filmmaker clarified, that Aquaman is "not necessarily part of a ‘cinematic universe,'" which might have been considered blasphemy even two years ago.
In that regard, Aquaman feels like a soft reboot. Like other studios seeking to replicate the success of Marvel, Warner Bros. took a shortcut to establishing its shared cinematic universe. Announced in 2014, the superhero movie slate now commonly referred to as the DC Extended Universe was haphazard at best, with 2013's Man of Steel retroactively made the starting point. The already in-development Batman v Superman, once widely believed to be Man of Steel 2, was used by Snyder not only to introduce the Dark Knight (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in prominent roles, but also to seed his Justice League, with shoe-horned cameos by Aquaman, The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
Marvel released five films before uniting its heroes in 2012's The Avengers, but Snyder and Warner Bros. sought to expedite the process; they built a cinematic universe on a shaky foundation, and it showed. Four years after the ambitious feature slate was announced, DC Films has undergone two internal upheavals, Snyder is gone, and a true Justice League sequel is never going to happen. The DC movie calendar barely resembles what was laid out in 2014, with the upcoming Joker taking place in its own continuity, and Wonder Woman 1984 and, maybe, The Flash arriving in 2020, where Cyborg and Green Lantern Corps were once planned. That doesn't even take into account the female-led Birds of Prey or James Gunn's apparent Suicide Squad do-over, neither of which (obviously) were part of the original plan.
Whether or not it's the intention, Aquaman represents a fresh start, permitting producers and writers to shore up the foundation without razing the entire structure. It affirms there's no need for films set in the present day to scatter Easter eggs or squeeze in cameos for the sake of fan service, or to nurture the idea of a shared universe. While audiences, and Momoa himself, may be eager to see Aquaman interact with Wonder Woman, The Flash and other heroes, hopefully Warner Bros. has learned a lesson from the past.
Fans love these heroes, and if the reception of Wonder Woman, and the early performance of James Wan's film, are any indication, they want to see more of them. What they don't want is another Justice League. Give them more Aquaman instead.
Directed by James Wan, Aquaman stars Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Amber Heard as Mera, Patrick Wilson as Orm, Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta, Temuera Morrison as Thomas Curry, Dolph Lundgren as Nereus and Nicole Kidman as Queen Atlanna. The film opens Friday nationwide.