TURNS OUT Superman and Batman have nothing on Aquaman.
The Warner Bros. flick about the salty superhero crossed $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales this weekend, on its way becoming the top-grossing DC Comics movie ever — passing the critically acclaimed Dark Knight series that featured Christian Bale as the caped crusader.
The unexpected success is good news for a studio that’s struggled to get the most out of its superheroes, and has lagged behind Walt Disney Co.’s more appealing Marvel characters. Warner Bros. became part of AT&T Inc. in an $85 billion merger last year, and the phone giant is counting on the superheroes to help sell its new media services.
“It gives them confidence that the approach they are taking is working,” said Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango.com. The studio is “creating films about these characters that are very accessible for people of all ages.”
Featuring Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa in the lead role, Aquaman is already a hit in the US and China, the two biggest film markets, and will build on that when it opens in Japan next month.
That makes it No. 1 among the DC films that Warner Bros. has released since the studio introduced Henry Cavill to a mixed reception as the new Superman in Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder. The studio’s biggest DC hit ever is The Dark Knight Rises, which collected $1.08 billion back in 2012. Aquaman looks set to pass that too.
With the new picture, director James Wan managed to create an entertaining underwater world for Aquaman, who is half human and half from Atlantis. Mr. Wan tells an origin story about a superhero who can communicate with marine life and must fight to claim his throne.
That’s a big turnaround from the less-flattering portrayal the superhero got in the pay-TV series Entourage from the Warner Bros. sibling company HBO. In that show about an up-and-coming actor and his pals, Aquaman is the butt of jokes — less known than Superman or Batman and less worthy of a feature film.
“Aquaman” had “everything stacked against it,” Mr. Davis said. “No one expected it to be good.”
The next movie in the DC lineup is Shazam! which will be the most family friendly yet, said Mr. Davis. It follows troubled 14-year-old Billy Batson, who can transform into an adult superhero. Warner Bros. borrows from the horror film world for its director with David Sandberg, who made Annabelle: Creation and Lights Out.
Warner Bros.’ woes with its comic-book franchise go back to at least 2014, when Chief Executive Officer Kevin Tsujihara committed the studio to a series of films and then saw big investments like Batman v Superman and Justice League come up short commercially or critically.
Now Warner Bros. is focusing more on stories and staffing and less on a rigid schedule of releases under film-studio chief Toby Emmerich. Warner Bros. hired Patty Jenkins to create a Wonder Woman movie, which went on to collect $821.8 million in global ticket sales. A follow-up, Wonder Woman 1984, is set for June 2020.
Before taking on Aquaman, Mr. Wan was a success in the horror genre and made the biggest hit from Universal Pictures’ Fast and Furious franchise. Taking on the sixth film in the DC series, he left behind stories set up by past installments. He also turned up the emotion.
With the new tack, Warner Bros. is free to try different approaches. In the upcoming Joker movie in October, Joaquin Phoenix appears to embrace the creepy take on the character that earned Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar. The film, a lower-cost take on the character’s origin, is directed by Todd Phillips, who made The Hangover.
Warner Bros. was also able to snare Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, who was let go by Disney after offensive, years-old tweets surfaced. He will take on a sequel of Suicide Squad.
The studio’s initial effort to reboot the DC series, with Superman in 2013, resulted in movies that were too serious, according to Barton Crockett, an analyst with B. Riley FBR Inc.
“The whole thing got to be a bore,” Mr. Crockett said. “What seems to be working right now is spectacle, irreverence and topicality.” — Bloomberg