Three months out from its release, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has already caused a splash. Unfortunately for Warner Brothers Discovery and its DC superhero empire, the waves created by the film are hardly calming. Amber Heard, star of 2018’s Aquaman, claims she has been written out of the sequel following her break-up with Johnny Depp and the ensuing libel trials. Jason Momoa, aka the eponymous Aquaman/Arthur Curry, admits he’s baffled at the original’s $1 billion box office. Director James Wan recently ended up in hospital, though he has denied stress over the tortured process of bringing the Lost Kingdom to the screen had anything to do with it.
“Every movie kills me as a director,” he told Entertainment Weekly – not quite the endorsement DC would have hoped for from the custodian of its fishiest franchise.
Wan has recovered. But the second Aquaman continues to gasp for air as it counts down to a December 20 release. Amid multiple reshoots, disastrous test screenings and confusion over the involvement or absence of Batman actors Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck, it’s hard not to conclude that the project is cursed. A new CGI-heavy trailer doesn’t auger well. It suggests The Lost Kingdom has the same flimsy, fake look as the DC’s calamitous Flash feature from last summer. Given how badly The Flash flopped, it’s hard not to see how Aquaman could be anything other than a disaster.
Much of the bad luck around the Lost Kingdom has been outside the control of Wan and his production team. The original Aquaman was a surprise juggernaut and the most successful entry in DC’s troubled cinematic universe – earning $1.14 billion compared to the more hyped Justice League’s relatively paltry $658 million. In that context, a sequel received a green light in 2019 (after previous plans for a Lovecraftian spin-off based on Aquaman’s aquatic Trench monsters were ditched).
All went as planned throughout filming through 2021 and early 2022. Then, the cracks appeared. In April 2022, WarnerMedia merged with Discovery. This resulted in the departure of the Warner executives who shepherded Aquaman to the screen, Toby Emmerich and Walter Hamada.
Their replacements, Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy, took over as the supposedly completed Lost Kingdom screened to test audiences. The feedback was not positive – fans found the Lost Kingdom “boring”, an accusation nobody could have levelled at the outrageous but entertaining original Aquaman. Abdy took the reins, bringing Momoa back to New Zealand for reshoots. A second cut overseen by Abdy was screened for test audiences. The response was even more negative than for Wan’s version. By now, the budget was ballooning towards $205 million – $40 million higher than the original.
Then came the Batman headache. Previous DC studio head, Hamda, had wanted a prominent role for Michael Keaton’s ageing Batman. Hamda’s vision was for Batkeaton to be the DC equivalent of Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury in the Marvel universe – a reassuringly grouchy presence who would pop up in various projects, beginning with The Flash.
The plans changed when Du Luca and Abdy parachuted in. Now, the Lost Kingdom was to release ahead of The Flash. And, rather than Keaton, the new regime was keen on bringing back the Batfleck. Ben Affleck was to suit up once more. So, having already dragged Michael Keaton back to shoot extra scenes introducing him ahead of The Flash, Warner needed Affleck again. The studio also canned an already completed Batgirl film, in which Keaton had a prominent role – burying it to avail of tax write-offs.
Could the waters get any choppier? Wan had his answer on November 22 with an announcement that was kryptonite to Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was unveiled as head of the newly formed DC Studios. Gunn, working with Peter Safran, producer of horror hits The Conjuring and Annabelle, had carte blanche to reinvent the DC universe. Meanwhile, Warner shuffled the schedule again – pushing the Lost Kingdom back to December (in a new interview Wan neither confirmed nor denied cameos by Keaton or Affleck).
One of Gunn’s first moves was to announce a new DC slate – beginning with an all-new Superman, written and directed by Gunn and with a new actor replacing Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel (Cavill having recently cameoed as Superman in Black Adam). Gunn was ambivalent about DC projects already in the pipeline. He bigged up The Flash, describing it as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. It wasn’t and, having stiffed at the box office, is on course to lose $200 million. That was on the heels of the equally disastrous Shazam 2 (losses estimated at $150 million) and ahead of Blue Beetle, currently the lowest-grossing DC film to date.
If gung-ho about The Flash, Gunn kept his counsel regarding the Lost Kingdom, even as Jason Momoa expressed amazement at the first Aquman being such a phenomenon. “To be perfectly honest, I was absolutely baffled that Aquaman was received so well,” he said in April. “I’ve done things that are amazing that no one sees and no one gives a s___ about. You just don’t know in this business.”
As the Aquaman saga played out, another drama was unfolding in the United States where Johnny Depp was suing his ex, Amber Heard, for defamation. In the witness stand, Heard complained negative publicity around her split from Depp had resulted in her being written out of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Another absence is Willem Dafoe, who portrayed Curry’s mentor in the first movie. Wan says “scheduling conflicts” meant Dafoe was unavailable (the director added that there is an expanded part for Nicole Kidman as Aquaman’s mother).
“I was given a script and then given new versions of the script that had taken away scenes that had action in it, that depicted my character and another character, without giving any spoilers away, two characters fighting with one another, and they basically took a bunch out of my role,” Heard told the court. “They just removed a bunch out.”
Wan denied that was the case when talking to Entertainment Weekly. Where the first movie had focused on Aquaman’s romance with Heard’s character Mera, the sequel was about his difficult relationship with half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in original Aquaman. Heard does feature in the new trailer – if only for a nanosecond. Blink, and you’d have missed her entirely. All the attention is on Arthur Curry, Orm and bug-eyed villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). A couple of larky scenes in the trailer suggest DC may have learnt the wrong lessons from Taika Waititi’s Thor films for Marvel.
Is Aquaman doomed? Wan insists he remains in control. Gunn has “weighed in”, says the director. But Wan maintains it’s still “his movie”. He added that all his films – going back to his 2004 break-out horror smash Saw – involve a degree of struggle, and that Aquaman 2 is no different. “Every movie kills me. If a movie doesn’t kill you as a director, you’re not doing your job right enough.”
Wan may be right. The worry for Warner Brothers Discovery is that, tossed back and forth by tidal waves of controversy, Aquaman 2 already seems dead on arrival.