Look, there’s a solid chance Aquaman could be good. Unlike its counterparts in the increasingly fractured DCEU, James Wan’s film hasn’t undergone feverish reshoots or lost its director midway through, nor has its production been mired in bad press or an endless rumour mill of drama. Jason Momoa’s clearly had the time of his life making it, without a Sad Affleck in sight, and ‘Nicole Kidman as a queen of the ocean’ is one of the easier sells of 2018. Still, when those first images of the movie were revealed in Entertainment Weekly, the responses were… let’s say they were mixed. If nothing else, it certainly seems like the film will look like nothing else on the market right now, and it’s always a delight to see a DC film that isn’t afraid of a vibrant colour palate. Sure, the aesthetics all seemed a bit silly and Patrick Stewart’s wig hairline is one of the greater mysteries in life, but at least it wasn’t another extended grimdark Crossfit session.
As for me, as someone who’s always loved DC comics more than Marvel one but finds the DCEU mostly unbearable, I had to admit I was kind of here for the Aquaman images: Nicole Kidman in a sparkly headphone tiara! Amber Heard with Cheeto-red hair! Everything Patrick Wilson has chosen to be! The film could be good. It may not be as well. Yet I’d never been more pumped up for Aquaman until I saw those photos and delighted in how giddily daft it all looked. It felt like DC were finally ready to throw their hands in the air and go, ‘Fuck it’, and I am here for that!
The heads of Warner Bros. and the various people who have been put in charge of DC’s movie division have never seemed to know what to do with such a gargantuan property. Trying to replicate the success of Marvel seemed like a good way to go until it wasn’t. Pushing a grimmer tone and more social-realist approach to fantastical material felt like an interesting alternative to what the competition was offering until audiences rejected it. Bringing Oscar winning A-Listers on board for iconic roles had its benefits until one of them went full Method and the other got sad. The budgets for these films went up and up until they became too big to fail, which they did for the most part.
There can be genius in chaos. There are benefits to having an intricately planned, years long slate of projects in the manner of Marvel, but giddy spontaneity has its perks for allowing creators to take risks beyond studio mandates. It took Marvel several years before they felt comfortable letting their projects evolve into distinct, director driven works. That first phase of work, even when big-name directors are involved, are clearly studio efforts. That’s something the DCEU decided to forego, and why not? If it worked well, Zack Snyder had the chance to make this franchise of historic pop culture heroes one that could redefine the language of blockbuster cinema. Christopher Nolan broke ground with his Dark Knight trilogy, and Snyder could build on that with a more speculative approach. Man of Steel was popular enough to give Warner Bros. confidence with the plan, even though the critical conversation around that film now is very different than it was upon its release.
The DCEU never had the creative heads or sturdy producers at the top keeping the franchise on the rails. It seemed like a good enough idea to let Snyder define its visual style and tone in such a major manner because hey, it worked for Man of Steel. Then Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice happened and the panic set in. Cue massive reshoots for Suicide Squad and a total tonal rewrite to drag the film out of the gloomy depths that got BvS torn to shreds. Remember the first trailer for Suicide Squad, which was as grimdark as anything Snyder did? Then remember the second one, full of blinding neon overlays, some jokes and an admittedly impressive use of Bohemian Rhapsody? You’d be forgiven for thinking they were two totally different movies. The chances are they probably were, given the rampant rumours of multiple edits. Warner Bros. got cold feet and tried to put colourful plasters all over their newest toy. It’s questionable whether the pure David Ayer version of the film would have been any good - I highly doubt it - but it may have at least been coherent.
The DCEU stuck to its plan for as long as it could manage, and Wonder Woman almost made it seem viable. But Justice League was too big, too unwieldy and too much to save. It lost Warner Bros. tens of millions of dollars and sparked further rumours that Ben Affleck wanted out of his Batman contract. Countless future DC projects were announced - from a Nightwing movie to Birds of Prey to Batgirl to Lobo (?) - but the strategy felt like the desperate flinging of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. It wasn’t just messy: It was boring.
And that’s why I can’t wait for the Fuck It phase of the DCEU.
The Fuck It phase is categorised by its devil-may-care attitude and willingness to get weird for the sake of it. It’s less concerned with seriousness and happy to delve more into the consciously silly nature of the genre. Superheroes are inherently kind of daft, and while it’s seen major creative booms over the decades for more committed approaches to the material, it feels like a betrayal of their roots to completely overlook the unabashed fun of men in tights, cheesy catchphrases and bat shark repellent. There’s something hugely appealing, from the point-of-view of a pop culture writer, about a franchise with that amount of money behind it deciding it may as well drop the pretences and get stupid.
I’m more excited for the DCEU now than I’ve ever been. Wonder Woman in the 80s with shoulder pads! A super weird Aquaman movie with ridiculous underwater fashion! Whatever the hell Shazam! is! A Joker prequel movie that will almost certainly be terrible, but it won’t have Jared Leto in it! And it may end up being a new jumping-on point for the franchise for the next Batman movie, with or without Affleck! With the exception of the first one, thanks to its first film being an undeniable success across the board, these projects feel like the kind of creative choices made by a studio whose game plan has failed but have found glimmers of hope in the weirder corners of their world. Making a Shazam! movie is something you either do when you’re completely invincible as a franchise or when you’re in full-on Fuck It mode, and I much prefer seeing how the latter pans out.
So. bring on the Fuck It phase. I want Nicole Kidman jet-skiing on dolphins. I want Ben Affleck to fully embrace how little he cares about this franchise, like Sean Connery at the end of his James Bond run. I want everyone in Shazam! to be dressed like a villain from Lazytown. I want every single one of these trailers to be scored with a super-serious slow cover of a popular song - think a piano ballad cover of Smack My Bitch Up. Fuck it, you may as well!