EXCLUSIVE: As Aquaman is poised to supplant The Dark Knight Rises as the top-grossing film in the DC Universe, Warner Bros has begun the process of bringing director James Wan back for the inevitable sequel. Sources said the plan in discussion is for Wan to oversee the development of a second film, including the selection of writers, and then make a decision on whether to direct it when he sees the script.
Small wonder that Warner Bros wants him back as badly as it did Patty Jenkins on the Wonder Woman sequel. Wan’s Aquaman has shifted the landscape of the DC Universe toward the iridescent deep-sea kingdom of Atlantis and away from grim old Gotham as far as the unofficial capital of the Warner’s superhero business. That symbolic relocation will happen when Wan’s Aquaman eclipses Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises this weekend on the strength of its international success.
As of last weekend, the global box office for Wan’s amphibious epic was closing in on $1.07 billion — and a mere $17 million shy of matching the mark set by the 2012 finale installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. When Wan’s salt-water saga does move into the top spot it will represent a sea change for Warner Bros. and its DC Comics adaptations. Consider this: Before 2012, the top-grossing DC adaptation was The Dark Knight, Nolan’s 2008 visit to Gotham City. Before 2008, the title belonged to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the landmark blockbuster that celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer.
So when Aquaman stakes claim to the top spot it will be the first time in three decades that Gotham City will settle for second in a ranking of Warner’s heroic hometowns.
Needless to say, Warner Bros. is eager to set sail with Aquaman 2. Wan is the only filmmaker who has delivered a billion-dollar moneymaker for two different studios (his Furious 7 revved up $1.5 billion for Universal in 2016) but don’t expect him to move on from the Aquaman franchise. The filmmaker is deeply invested in the world creation aspect of Aquaman and sees the deep, blue sea as a fantasy setting that can be cinematically comparable to Middle-earth, the Jedi galaxy or the wizarding world of the Harry Potter films. There’s a lot of ocean floor and undersea kingdoms left for Wan explore.
There may be plenty of fish in the sea but Wan is a rare savant when it comes to delivering high-return international hits. Born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, he is a citizen of the world in his filmmaking sensibilities and Aquaman has proven to be a powerhouse export. Only 28% of the film’s box office haul has been in the domestic marketplace. No other DC Comics movie has traveled as well or as far in foreign markets.
The filmmaker minted his Hollywood reputation within the horror genre by displaying a golden (and grisly) touch with hard-R hits with lean budgets and fat profits. His feature debut, Saw, for instance, was filmed in 18 days for $1.2 million — it went on to generate $103 million in global box office and six sequels for Lionsgate. Wan didn’t direct any of those Saw sequels, however, and while he profited from them as a producer he also blanched when the franchise veered from his original vision in ways both large and small.
Lesson learned, Wan stayed on as the director for the sequels to Insidious (2011) and The Conjuring (2013). At New York Comic Con in 2012 he acknowledged the protective spirit he felt toward his franchise launches: “I think the sequel to Insidious is kind of my reaction to Saw, where for my own reason I wasn’t as involved in the sequels, and so I felt with Insidious, I think it would be good to shepherd it and keep it more in track to the vision I had when I made the first film so that it doesn’t detour too far. I never set out to make sequels to any of my films I direct. If they happen, that’s great because that means people out there love it and they want more of it. But I always felt with Insidious we created this really interesting world that we can explore more…”
Wan spent years working on Aquaman including 172 days on principal photography with stops in Queensland, Morocco, Italy and Canada. It’s hard to imagine him walking away now. Last month I asked him about the sequel and he demurred. “I’m superstitious about that,” he said.
Wan clearly set the stage for the sequel in the first film by introducing Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the Black Manta in a prominent, compelling and open-ended sequence which did plenty to whet fans appetite for his rematch with Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman.
After Wan’s Furious 7 success, Warner Bros. was so eager to work with the filmmaker on a superhero film that they offered him his pick of properties. The director considered The Flash project but in the end chose Aquaman for its (literally) immersive fantasy potential and also because he liked the challenge presented by the much-maligned hero’s pop-culture standing. For years Aquaman has been an orange-shirted punchline (thanks to Entourage, SpongeBob SquarePants, Robot Chicken, etc.). No one is laughing anymore. And this weekend when the King of Atlantis surpasses the Dark Knight of Gotham City, orange will officially be the new black for Warner Bros.