Aquaman Wields His Power for DC Entertainment

by Diana Drake

The blockbuster movie “Aquaman,” which has taken in some $750 million in sales worldwide in the past several weeks, is on track to become DC Films’ biggest box-office grosser and the overall most successful DC Comics movie that isn’t a sequel to the movie “Dark Knight.”

This is great news for DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. that manages DC Comics and related intellectual property, like popular superhero characters Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman. The “Aquaman” movie is “a big win for Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment,” said David Betancourt, a reporter for The Washington Post who writes about all aspects of comic book culture for the Comic Riffs blog. “The last time they were around this block was “The Justice League” film about a year ago, and that was an absolute disaster for a number of reasons. All the great DC icons in that movie could not save it. This is a nice step away from that. “Aquaman has a great lead actor, a great cast and a director known for horror and action. They pulled all the greatness from the DC comic books that they could.”

Betancourt recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton Radio Show, which airs on Sirius XM, to discuss the latest superhero film and what it means for DC Entertainment’s head-to-head combat with Marvel Worldwide, a competing studio that has produced such superhero hits as “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man.” Also joining the K@W show on Sirius was Matt McAllister, a professor of film, video and media studies at Penn State University.

Betancourt and McAllister shared some business intel about the latest superhero culture and the battle for box-office supremacy between DC and Marvel. Here are 10 top takeaways:

  1. Aquaman’s strength showed weeks ago. While “Aquaman” didn’t debut in U.S. theaters until December 21, DC and entertainment-industry watchers were encouraged by some impressive international buzz. “It used to be that the international releases of these movies came after the North American debut,” noted Betancourt. “That’s the exact opposite right now. There’s so much more money to be made overseas, which is why “Aquaman” was opening in Asia two weeks [before the U.S.]. It’s a good way to make sure you’re getting a return on movies that cost a lot of money to make.” Added McAllister: “The China box office [for “Aquaman”] was very impressive from a business point of view. China went gonzo over it. A lot of these Hollywood blockbusters are comic book adaptations. Part of the reason that Hollywood likes them is because they do so well internationally. Typically, these movies will make a lot more money in the international box office than in the domestic box office.”
  1. Marvel reigns. In the battle between DC and Marvel, Marvel has so far emerged victorious.
  1. Marvel’s strategy has been more successful. “Marvel Studios took its library of superheroes and made it an interconnected universe where every movie is connected to each other and every movie ends kind of leading to the next movie,” said Betancourt. “They’ve been doing that over the last decade to the point where the “Avengers” film last May and the one coming out this April are huge events that are literally 10 years in the making.”
  1. DC has tried to emulate that approach – and has failed. “After “Man of Steel” came out in 2013, Warner Bros. and DC said they were going to play catch-up,” explained Betancourt. “They said, ‘We’re going to have a movie where Batman and Superman are fighting [“Batman v. Superman”], and we’re going to throw Wonder Woman in there, and then jump right to the Justice League.’ They didn’t take the time to give each hero an individual movie. By rushing to emulate Marvel’s success, the storytelling and impact of it wasn’t as potent as it could have been. What you’re seeing with DC’s success of “Wonder Woman” last year and “Aquaman” this year is that if DC had just taken the time to give each individual hero their own story and narrative to build a connection to the fan base, and then connect them together in a Justice League movie, it would have been a lot more successful.”
  1. DC is adjusting its strategy. “One thing that “Aquaman” points out is that Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment learned from their mistakes, looked at what didn’t work with “Batman vs. Superman” and “Justice League,” looked at what did work with “Wonder Woman” and moved forward with that in “Aquaman,” said Betancourt. “They are now going in the right direction.” Added McAllister: “DC is just going to have to keep its eyes on where it wants to go and to exploit its really endearing characters (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) that are very well-known and beloved that they can take advantage of.”
  1. It’s more than just movies. While blockbuster movies get a lot of attention from the press, DC in particular has much more going on. “DC and Warner Bros. do hedge their bets with other multimedia projects,” McAllister pointed out. “They’re big with the CW [TV network] and more successful with animated projects than Marvel has been. Lego Batman was a huge hit last year. They have these other ways of licensing and merchandising their characters that have been pretty successful. They’re just not as high profile as the big Hollywood movies.” They currently have their own streaming service, DC Universe, “which has a live-action, R-rated show called “Titans” based off their “Teen Titans” property,” noted Betancourt.
  1. Plot twist: DC’s “Wonder Woman” beat Marvel to the punch. “Captain Marvel” starring Brie Larson comes out in March. With that, “Marvel will finally have its first film with a female lead,” said Betancourt.
  1. A big acquisition in 2018 could expand DC’s possibilities. In June, AT&T closed a an $85.4 billion deal to acquire Time-Warner, which is the parent company of Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment. “With this massive ownership change at Warner, AT&T plans to do a model of vertical integration and keep all these licenses in play, said McAllister. “We’ll have to see how that changes their long-term strategy and all these various outlets that they’re exploring, in addition to the movies.” If nothing else, they will have greater financial power and more places to put their content.
  1. Meanwhile, 2019 means new beginnings for Marvel Worldwide. Marvel has “Captain Marvel” coming out in March and the final “Avengers” movie coming out in April. “Marvel is at the tail end of this 10-year buildup and some big things are going to happen in the last “Avengers: Endgame” movie,” observed Betancourt. “Marvel is going to start building toward the next generation of heroes, possibly even having a new Avengers team.”
  1. Next up for DC? Shazam!, a film based on the DC Comics character of the same name. “The trailer looks like it’s a lot of fun and funny,” noted McAllister. In addition to hoping that “Aquaman” has “long legs” at the box office into the new year, DC has to “stay calm and stay the course in terms of individual superhero movies,” said Betancourt. “They need to look at what worked with “Wonder Woman” and what worked with “Aquaman.” They’re probably hoping that “Shazam!” will be more of the same.”

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Conversation Starters

What do the experts say about why DC has been less successful on the big screen than Marvel? Do you agree? Why or why not?

What is your favorite superhero movie? How does your choice fit with some of the behind-the-scenes business insights from this article?

Did you like “Aquaman?” Why or why not?

3 comments on “Aquaman Wields His Power for DC Entertainment

  1. I have watched all movies from DC and Marvel, and I would say that the reason for Marvel to be so successful is that Marvel caught the time to promote its first movie—“Iron Man” in 2007. Fans of superheroes couldn’t be satisfied because all their favorite superheroes can only be seen on TV in the form of comics. Once the film” Iron Man” came out, fans of superheroes, no mater of DC or Marvel, were nearly crazy about its special effects, sound effect, and its plot, which provide Marvel the ability to create more superhero films. Even though Marvel had made several mistakes, there was still enough time for Marvel to correct those issues since that was about 10 years ago, which was the time that superhero films were not the main trend. Attribute the success to the great start of Marvel Studio, Marvel soon released more creation such as “Iron Man 2” and “Captain America”. Marvel decided to connect the plot from each individual film together to make audience feel curious about the next film, and that decision helped Marvel become a powerful superhero movie producer.

    Later on, DC also started its 10-year-project just like what Marvel did. However, what DC did was hurry to imitate Marvel’s success but not on order of film production. There were only 3 individual superhero movies before “Justice League”, which means this movie did not have fundamental base of superheroes. So when “Justice League” came out, many people even didn’t know some characters. For instance, I could not tell who is Aquaman at that time, also the plot was quite massive. Subsequently, DC has decided to focus on individual superhero movies like “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman”, which have impressed audience deeply.

    Actually, the style of plot in DC has big difference compared with Marvel. Marvel’s films focus greatly on visual presentation. The hue and background music which used by Marvel were grand enough to attract people’s attention. Also, the plots are usually simple and end up with a “happy ending”, which is acceptable by people of all ages. However, DC is more skilled to use the dark style on making the plot. For example, when everyone think that Batman has killed Joker, at the end of the page, Batman smiled viciously just like Joker. Moreover, previous DC films were mostly made by directors who made horror film before. As a result, “jump scare” was frequent in DC previous films, and children are afraid of that.

    I do suggest that DC has not achieved Marvel’s success yet, but I think DC can promote its superiority on some wonderful works like Joker. I believe that would impact the superhero movie industry intensely.

    • DC isn’t Marvel – and it shouldn’t try to be.

      I found myself repeatedly nodding in agreement when reading your comment from two years ago, Harry. Your analysis of when Marvel started to gain the upper hand in the competition with DC, how DC failed in its “hurry to imitate Marvel’s success” and the differences between the two superhero factories were spot on.

      I agree that “DC has not achieved Marvel’s success.” But I wonder if DC should even try to catch up – at least not in the traditional sense. In the past, DC had tried to overtake Marvel by adopting Marvel’s business model. However, In the process of copying Marvel’s formula, it ignored the core component of Marvel’s success: its relationship with its audiences. Although the MCU is what seems to make Marvel unique at first glance, it is merely a byproduct of Marvel’s long-term relationships with its viewers. DC focused too much on the idea of a connected Universe itself, disregarding the quality of its individual releases and feedback of its audiences, ironically destroying the relationship with its fanbase. This is repeatedly reflected by mediocre box office sales and disappointing viewer feedback. 

      What DC needs to do now is slowly find and reestablish its own market, and I believe the best way to do so is to focus on a darker genre that suits the wants of more mature viewers.

      I absolutely agree with your opinion that DC should leverage the success of Joker in other projects. There’s something special about the film, something so dark and grounded that it barely feels like a superhero movie. Joker supports your argument about how DC is more skilled in crafting darker plots – I couldn’t agree more, and the difference with Marvel is palpable. While Marvel can stick to the more family-friendly endeavors with happy endings, DC stands out by producing edgier material that targets more mature audiences and excelling in a type of movie rarely seen in Hollywood. Make Batman a player in a grisly murder mystery within the walls of Arkham Asylum; give Cyborg his own movie that imagines his transformation into half-man, half-machine with a body horror twist; or even give previously unadapted characters with a dark past a chance at the limelight. 

      While moviegoers embrace classic, morally secure superheroes, many audiences are equally interested in characters with complicated backstories and questionable philosophies about right and wrong. DC should give its villains a unique voice instead of blindly emulating Marvel’s “stock heroes.” What keeps a moviegoer invested in a film are events that create an emotional reaction within them, be it relatability or even fear. If DC can continue to fill the audience’s expectations for their genre, a strong DC comeback with its authentic, non-mainstream, and profound characters is almost certain. 

      Furthermore, DC has so many other strengths to secure itself a unique market. Aside from a vast collection of comics it proudly owns, DC, as the article mentions, is “more than just movies” since it now has a streaming service, where it can reach out to its audiences much quicker at a lower cost than theatrical movies. 

      Be yourself, be original, DC! Play to the individual strengths of each franchise, and eventually, you will have a firm audience group that you can build into so much more.

      You’re right, Harry, DC has so much to offer the movie industry. Let’s hope it rises to the challenge.

  2. Superheroes are a world to themselves. As a child, I remember avidly watching shows where superpowered characters performed great feats to save others. There was something about the simplistic look of the clashing heroes and villains that really appealed to me. Maybe as a child when I couldn’t fully grasp the story, the design of the actual heroes and villains can tell the story by themselves. I could see their emotions clearly and can tell generally how they are in the story whether conflicted about some decision or worried about their secret identity being exposed. Marvel and DC superheroes have their parallels in this aspect and it’s easily identifiable in mediums such as their movies and shows.

    In comic books, “a picture’s worth a thousand words” rings true; every stroke and color emphasizes something about the character. Many people online have said that the Marvel characters are more down to Earth. Something that resonates with the kid inside me is the bright colors that go with the heroes. Marvel isn’t afraid to play around with colors whilst keeping their characters relatable and that’s what appealed to me. In comic books, DC characters have always been more out there and colorful but in their movie forms they were much too dull playing into the dark colors as a gritty tone. It was hard to watch the movies and appreciate the characters in this forced style so I kept watching Marvel instead.

    However, when I saw Wonder Woman in theaters for the first time there was a vague sense of familiarity to the animated shows. The gritty yet realistic look combined with the naive jokes that arose from Diana’s naivety allowed for a sense of natural worldbuilding and growth. I didn’t watch Justice League as it went back to the weird gritty aesthetic mixed with weird jokes trying to emulate Marvel. The reviews highlighted this weirdness but I did notice Aquaman in the trailers with his distinct personality that felt akin to Wonderwoman in her solo movie. This was highlighted in the Aquaman trailers which showcased a breakaway from the dullness and embrace towards the actor’s personality. They actually integrated more humor and really showcased the beauty of Atlantis. Even in scarier moments, like the Trench scene, due to the overall aesthetic of the movie being more vibrant the darker scene’s mood is accentuated rather than taken away from. Both Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s vibrancy in their individual movies really spoke to the kid inside me and reinvigorated my interest in watching live action movies. With the future release of movies like Black Adam keeping inline with using vibrant colors and individualized personalities, I can really look forward to watching a future team-up between these characters as many were for the first Avengers movie.

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