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Warner Bros.' Aquaman is a monumentally important film for the studio and the DCEU, carrying with it waves of expectation and hopes that it will mark a turning point for the beleaguered franchise. This is somewhat ironic because for director James Wan, part of the reason he wanted to make Aquaman was specifically because he thought that it would be an under-the-radar DC movie. Explaining his thinking, he said:
You can see the logic in James Wan's thinking here. Aquaman is far from the most popular DC hero and fans don't have the kind of built up expectations for him that they do for the characters that have had multiple cinematic outings and enjoy greater popularity. As he told Business Insider, Aquaman is the character that gets made fun of; he's the one who talks to fish, wears an ugly suit and was the subject of a storyline on HBO's Entourage. So in theory there were no expectations and nowhere to go but up.
Therefore James Wan picked Aquaman because he thought that he could just make the film without the kind of intense scrutiny that other superhero movies face. He wanted to just swim under-the-radar and make his movie and hope that it would be a pleasant surprise. But James Wan should have known that a movie set so deep underwater would be subject to immense pressure.
Any hopes James Wan had of making an under-the-radar DC movie were blown out of the water when Justice League disappointed critically and commercially, setting the DCEU back from its Wonder Woman high. That put a massive spotlight on the next DCEU film, James Wan's Aquaman. As the only DCEU movie in 2018, all the focus turned to Aquaman, ensuring that this character, once considered a joke, was now viewed as the one responsible for righting the ship of the DCEU.
It's an unfair burden but that's the reality of the situation. And while James Wan wanted to make the movie under-the-radar, his pedigree alone brings with it some degree of spotlight. Talented filmmakers carry expectations to every project they work on. This project also happened to be a massive superhero blockbuster so avoiding the spotlight is unlikely.
If Justice League had succeeded, the spotlight would have been on Aquaman to keep the good times rolling, so James Wan's film was always going to have some pressure on it, but the relative failures of the team-up film compounded that pressure.
So far the signs are good that Aquaman did not crack under the pressure and James Wan's film may finally help the DCEU off its path of two steps forward, one step back. Aquaman dominated the box office opening weekend, and while its domestic opening lags behind the rest of the DCEU films, it is crushing overseas. Critically it has also received generally favorable reviews.