I don’t think it’s unfair to continue to compare the DC Extended Universe to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nor is it unfair to characterize it as a comparative failure both financially and artistically. Every film except Wonder Woman has been received a mixed reception at best, and even Wonder Woman is far from a great film. After Justice League flopped, a wave of standalone DC projects were announced. Batman and Superman have both departed the franchise. The foray into the Snyder-verse is (probably) dead. Considering all that, it wasn’t hard for Aquaman to surpass my expectations, yet there are aspects of this film that are so good they have the ability to change DC and help it shake the comparisons to Marvel.
If you’ve seen Wonder Woman and Justice League, you have seen that the DC universe has rich mythology. The Atlanteans, Amazons, Olympian Gods and New Gods have existed and fought for a long time. Aquaman gives more of that, introducing the underwater kingdoms, teaching us about the history and legends of Atlantis, and showing aspects of their culture like stadium fights and casual racism – I personally loved the armor worn by Orm and King Nereus and would love to see more excellent costuming in these films. The different societies give DC more potential characters and conflict opportunities. Making films set in the past (pre-Wonder Woman) could give audiences something new, while staying somewhat familiar.
Another thing Aquaman gets right is sparing the villains. I can’t stand how many of Marvel’s (admittedly bland) villains have been killed off. Marvel hasn’t really tried bringing a villain back yet (Loki doesn’t count because he isn’t exclusively an antagonist), but Black Manta and Orm can both scheme away in the DCEU. Maybe Lex Luthor can team up with Orm in a second Justice League film; that might be terrible, but at least it can happen while staying within the DCEU canon.
The final battle of the film shows off James Wan’s ability as a blockbuster director, but it also shows DC isn’t afraid to have villains that aren’t faceless drones. A clash between the Brine and the Atlanteans pits two armies made up of creatures both trying to preserve their world; the Brine want to live in peace and the Atlanteans want to kill all surface-dwellers. Aquaman isn’t fighting bugs or robots (DC and Marvel are both guilty of this), he’s fighting his own people when he swoops in on a sea monster. There’s real weight and stakes to go along with the visual spectacle.
Above all, Aquaman succeeds because Aquaman is a hero. He’s a good guy who saves people because it’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t want to be king of Atlantis, he just wants to stop the people who live underwater from eradicating the surface-dwellers. Aquaman is able to identify with people despite their differences. Most importantly, he doesn’t needlessly kill (looking at you, Supes and Batman). When the audience likes the character, they want them to achieve their goal, and that’s the core of cinematic storytelling in a superhero film.
I could write a ton about what I didn’t like about Aquaman, but at the end of the day it was an enjoyable film and a step in the right direction for a universe that can’t seem to do much right. The potential good outweighs the bad, and maybe there’s a chance DC sees the relative success Wonder Woman and Aquaman have enjoyed and expands on the mythological aspects of their universes. Even if that doesn’t happen, I hope they salvage the franchise. The Marvel machine doesn’t seem like it will shut down anytime soon, so there’s no time like the present to capitalize on the good in Aquaman. Batman and Superman are almost synonymous with superhero, and they deserve better than the last five years of DC films.