Does Aquaman Matter?

'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom' arrives as box-office bombs and off-screen scandals have thrown the Marvel and DC cinematic universes into disarray.

Jason Momoa in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures & DC Comics

It may be too soon to declare that the superhero movie bubble has burst. After all, adaptations of Marvel comics still comprise three of this year’s top ten highest grossing films at the US box office, and if this week’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom matches the performance of its predecessor it will also claim a spot on the board. 

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Still, the tide seems to be turning against the costumed crusaders who have dominated cinemas since 2008’s one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Both Disney’s Marvel and Warner’s DC suffered major commercial disappointments this year, as well as off-screen scandals that have called the futures of their ongoing movie universes into question. And, since both brands have promoted those universes as the product above any particular character, creator, or star, the integrity of these complex continuities has an outsized importance to the audience. This used to be an asset, drawing filmgoers out for each new installment on opening weekend to ensure that they stayed up to date on the overarching saga and avoided spoilers online. Now, it’s an albatross. Disinterest in any one movie can kill the momentum for the rest of its universe, as can confusion over what is or isn’t canon.

Which leads us to this weekend’s big question mark: Right now, nobody knows whether or not Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom “counts.”

Ezra Miller as the Flash (both left and center) and Sasha Calle as Supergirl in The Flash. Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

Earlier this year, The Flash selectively rebooted the DC film continuity via in-universe time travel shenanigans, allowing the studio to discard the components that weren’t connecting with audiences and keep the ones that still drew big money. (DC does this in the comics every couple of years.) But between the end of principal photography and release, DC threw out its plans for the post-Flash incarnation of their universe and hired producers James Gunn and Peter Safran to start a new one from scratch. A post-credits stinger at the end of The Flash indicates that Jason Momoa’s popular take on Aquaman has survived the reboot completely intact, meaning that The Lost Kingdom is still canon to the new universe, but it no longer appears that The Flash itself is still canon to the new universe. James Gunn has waffled on this to the press, but the latest word is that nothing released before 2024 is going to be incorporated into the new DCU.

“So, what?” you might be asking. Does it really matter whether a movie connects to a dozen other movies? It shouldn’t, but the proliferation of superhero movies over the past decade and a half has been predicated on the assumption that it does. Marvel owes much of its reliability at the box office to their training the audience to look at their entire output as a single series. You wouldn’t skip an episode of the TV show that you and your friends are all watching. In the same way, whether or not Ant-Man & the Wasp would ordinarily be your cup of tea, you don’t want to miss it, because then you won’t get the most out of Avengers: Endgame. Spider-Man: No Way Home extended that obligation beyond the confines of the MCU to include two defunct movie continuities, and next summer’s Deadpool 3 is poised to do the same thing. Whether or not a complete knowledge of these universes is actually necessary to enjoy each film, these studios have willfully created the perception that it is. When keeping up with the curriculum requires so much study, why spend your time or money on something that isn’t going to be on the final?

Avengers: Endgame Marvel Cast Salaries Robert Downey Jr.
Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Karen Gillan, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Paul Rudd, Scarlett Johansson in Avengers Endgame.  Marvel Studios

As for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, DC has been less intense about maintaining a single, interconnected storyline between its feature films, and there’s less of an “all or nothing” culture around the brand. Two of their biggest hits, Joker and The Batman, exist in their own, isolated universes, featuring some of the same characters played by different actors in different contexts. If The Lost Kingdom is a hit, there’s no rule that says DC couldn’t just keep making Jason Momoa Aquaman movies that have no relation to Gunn and Safran’s universe. Hell, it’s difficult to gauge whether or not the general viewing public is even aware that the continuity in which Aquaman exists is being discarded, but it can’t help that Momoa himself is out on the press tour telling Entertainment Tonight that the future of the franchise “doesn’t look good.” That’s a shocking thing to say into a microphone about the sequel to a billion-dollar movie.

Across the street at Marvel, another continuity crisis is underway, as actor Jonathan Majors, who has already debuted as the overarching villain of their Multiverse Saga, was dropped from his contract after being convicted for assault and harassment. This, on the heels of a few underperforming features and Disney+ series about lesser-known superheroes, reportedly has the studio redrawing their roadmap, and possibly bringing Iron Man and Black Widow back from the dead

Such a move might grab audiences’ attention, but it also might also push them towards the grim revelation that all superhero comics fans eventually suffer: None of this shit counts. Change rarely sticks, no one stays dead, and the corporate owners of these characters will always revert them to their most recognizable, most marketable forms, erasing whatever development or consequences you enjoyed during your time with them. The more precious the intellectual property, the more disposable the story. If you are reading or watching them with the goal of increasing your knowledge base, of solving some grander puzzle, then you are going to be disappointed. The only real value is your enjoyment of each individual installment.

So, if Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom looks like fun to you, by all means, go check it out. Enjoy it for what it is, on its own merits. Will there be a sequel? Will it be folded into the upcoming DCU, or whatever comes after it? Does it “count?” These are issues for the producers and studio executives to care about. As viewers, fans, and critics, we should put these questions out of our minds and let movies be movies. If we do this, and the studios notice, then who knows — maybe the movies will even get better.

Does Aquaman Matter?