Following DC Comics' relaunch of its publishing line in 2011 (an initiative dubbed the New 52), writer Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis took over Aquaman's ongoing series and sought to restore the character's sense of legitimacy and worthiness within the DC Universe. Much of the creative team's first arc leaned into the preconception that the character was a bit of a joke compared to the rest of the Justice League, with civilians dismissing Arthur before he triumphantly reminds the world of why he's one of the DCU's premier superheroes. This arc was immediately followed up by a crossover with the main Justice League ongoing series; having firmly reestablished the superhero within the DCU, Johns and Reis then made the character an integral part of DC's most enduring ensemble title.
The New 52 comic book run is a clear influence on Wan's solo film, with Johns even serving as a co-writer on the movie's screenplay. Filmmaker Zack Snyder had already introduced Jason Momoa's incarnation of the character to the DCEU in Batman v Superman, but replacement director Joss Whedon leaned more heavily into the jokier aspects of the character during Justice League reshoots, despite protests from Momoa himself. As such, while Aquaman featured a more light-hearted tone than its DCEU predecessors, the jokes in the film are not so much about the quality of the superhero and at Arthur's expense but rather about the ridiculousness of the overarching world itself.
Following the lukewarm reception to Batman v Superman and Justice League, Wan employed a much brighter, more colorful visual design for Aquaman than the dark, muted color palettes of the previous films. The marketing for the film wisely showcased this lighter tone and more effervescent visual design from the film's first trailer and promotional materials, revealing to audiences that the undersea hero's solo film would be markedly different than what came before. The film's cheeky sense of humor would later carry over into the wider marketing for the film, buoyed by an unfailingly enthusiastic Momoa.
To better position itself internationally, the film opened in China weeks earlier than North America, where it quickly became a box office success. The film received a rare theatrical extension from the Chinese government to play in cinemas for an additional month, ultimately becoming the highest earning Warner Bros. film released in the country, and second only to Avengers: Infinity War as the highest earning Hollywood film released in China last year, earning $294.8 million in the country.
To build an early positive word-of-mouth in the United States, Amazon Prime members were given access to early screenings of the film, nearly a full week before Aquaman's wide release domestically. The strategy payed off, with demand leading to the studio adding an additional 100 screens to the advance showings which gave the film an early domestic box office boost. The advance screenings didn't prematurely throw off the film's momentum, and despite opening against Disney's Mary Poppins Returns and Paramount's Bumblebee, the DCEU movie easily won the Christmas opening weekend, earning over $100 million domestically across the five-day period with its momentum leading it to top the domestic box office for three weekends in a row.
While 2017's Wonder Woman had served as a course correction of sorts, the lackluster box office and critical response to the following year's Justice League left the DCEU in dire straits. Aquaman's unprecedented success came as a much-needed victory, leading the studio not only to approach Wan to direct a sequel but also for the studio to rethink its entire strategy regarding the future of the DCEU. The underwater superhero not only saved the day on the big screen, but behind-the-scenes, may have saved DC Films. Not bad for a character that was written off by many as the perennial joke of the DC Universe.
Directed by James Wan, Aquaman stars Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Amber Heard as Mera, Patrick Wilson as Ocean Master, 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.