A little over a month since its theatrical debut, James Wan's Aquaman has cemented its status as a worldwide, unequivocal success. The first film in the DC Extended Universe to earn over $1 billion at the global box office, this past weekend saw the superhero film surpass the lifetime earnings of 2012's The Dark Knight Rises to become the highest earning DC Comics adaptation of all time. Providing a much-needed win for Warner Bros.' beleaguered DCEU, Aquaman's runaway success with audiences was by no means a guarantee, especially considering the reputation of its eponymous superhero before the film's opening.
For the past several decades, the underwater DC Comics superhero had been written off by the general public as a joke; a woefully out-of-place character amongst the DC Universe's greatest heroes on the Justice League. Dismissed for his alleged ineffectiveness out of water and his seemingly useless ability to communicate with sea life, the character has been fighting a stigma that began as early as 1967's animated series, Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure and 1973's Super Friends, which reduced his character to only be useful in limited situations, accentuated by the familiar telepathic noise used by the character to let fish handle the hard work for him.
“For years Aquaman has been an orange-shirted punchline... No one is laughing anymore. And this weekend when the King of Atlantis surpasses the Dark Knight of Gotham City, orange will officially be the new black for Warner Bros.”— James Wan (@creepypuppet) January 26, 2019
Following his two animated appearances, which served as a dubious first impression to the general public, Arthur Curry had become something of a pop culture punchline, often the butt of superhero-themed jokes on late night television. This included the character being parodied in a 1992 skit on Saturday Night Live, attending Superman's funeral to tie-in with the landmark Death of Superman storyline in the comics with David Spade as Aquaman; a running joke character on Adult Swim's stop-motion comedy series Robot Chicken; the subject of an animated spoof on Fox's variety show Mad TV; a recurring bit on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson; and, of course, a longstanding joke across multiple seasons of the HBO series Entourage, selected by series creator Doug Ellin largely because of the sheer ridiculousness of the character.
Hindsight being 20/20, the HBO series' joking predictions that an Aquaman film would go on to become one of the biggest movies of all time were surprisingly prescient. The real film has already earned over $300 million at the domestic box office alone, outperforming the domestic engagements of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Venom and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, not to mention every other film from Warner Bros.' formerly struggling shared cinematic universe. But how, exactly, did a superhero that languished for years become the DCEU's unlikely biggest hit, vastly outperforming its more iconic counterparts including Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League?