Box office predictions have “Aquaman,” starring Jason Momoa as a half-Atlantian superhero who can talk to fish, making between $65 million to $72 million the weekend before Christmas. But as crazy as talking to fish sounds, in 2018, not that many people saw the wildest stories adapted for the screen from a DC Comics property — because they were on television.
Among the highlights: The CW’s “Arrow” and “Flash” swapping the identities of their main characters for a crossover event that saw each character borrowing the other’s catchphrases. Dick Grayson on DC Universe’s “Titans,” shredding a dude’s face on broken glass and then growling “fuck Batman.” And never forget whatever “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” (by some metrics, the best show on television) is doing on a weekly basis.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when one looks at the wealth of TV properties currently airing or in development that draw upon characters like Superman and Batman. These shows aren’t winning Emmys, but on a creative level, they’re excelling beyond what’s happening on the big screen.
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DC’s latest entry, “Aquaman” is decidedly not for everyone; IndieWire’s Eric Kohn gave it a C in his pan, noting that “instead of making one ‘Aquaman’ movie, Wan has made three or four, spinning the wheel and changing modes whenever one idea dries up.”
But to that movie’s credit, its best qualities are all symptomatic of why the DC shows have been so watchable for years. Every beat of the film is painfully predictable, emulating the worst of blockbuster formulas. As just one example: Hey, is that big mid-movie action sequence going to be followed by a quieter scene where two characters who are going to make out later have a moment of pre-makeout bonding? Hell yeah!
That said, Wan and Momoa’s team-up enables some moments that do feel fun and authentic — smiles are rare among the rest of the cinematic Justice League (save for Wonder Woman’s discovery of climbing up walls and eating ice cream in her first film), but Arthur’s resistance to taking a selfie quickly devolves into an interest in having a good time. He casually swears before leaping into battle, and truly engages with the story beats that demand him to go for more ridiculous extremes. Historically, the character of Aquaman has always had a very varied personality, but here it’s tailored to Momoa’s strengths — he’s a sardonic bro, the kind of guy you definitely want to share a beer with.
It may be hard for studios to remember this sometimes, but stories are about characters. They’re about people. And when it comes to an anchoring hero, it should be fun to imagine slamming down a pint with them. That’s a desire “Arrow” and “The Flash” and the surrounding series have always leaned into, using the medium of television to let the characters become a part of people’s lives.
In July 2014, writer-producer Geoff Johns told the Television Critics Association press tour during a panel for “The Flash” that the production company had different approaches to the storytelling possibilities at its disposal. “At DC, we really see film and TV as separate worlds,” he said. “‘Arrow’ and ‘Flash’ create a huge DC universe for us. And it’s going to live and breathe and grow.”
That is what has happened with the Greg Berlanti-produced series, where the writing staffs work together as much as possible to keep each other in continuity, but are otherwise free to develop their own narratives.
Perhaps that’s for the best, because even from film to film, the big-screen DC movies lack the same attention to continuity. For example, part of Aquaman’s introduction in “Justice League” finds him stating that his mother left him on his father’s doorstep. Meanwhile, the standalone “Aquaman” movie, released only 13 months later, depicts a completely different narrative — a loving mother who stayed with her toddler son until her Atlantian connections required her to flee.
A flub on that level would never happen in the Berlanti universe, or in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though the divide there between film and TV has grown more recently, as the remaining TV properties — “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” on Netflix, “Runaways” on Hulu, “Cloak and Dagger” on Freeform, and “Agents of SHIELD” on ABC — have become much more separate from their filmic counterparts.
Separation, for the record, is not a bad thing. In fact, that’s what helped the DC shows thrive. Another series that deserves mention here is Fox’s “Gotham,” entering its fifth and final season in January. The Batman prequel drama used the DC/TV disconnect to create its own very specific aesthetic, driven by some stellar production design, make-up, costuming, and performances.
In short, “Gotham” was allowed to be weird. So was “Titans,” which isn’t a great show, but more watchable than one might expect. “The Flash,” “Arrow,” “Supergirl,” and “Black Lightning” all regularly acknowledge their oddness. And lest we forget, “Legends of Tomorrow” is the sort of show where something like this happens on a regular basis:
And all of these things unfold in tandem with taking the internal continuity of these universes seriously. The writers of “Titans” know it doesn’t have to align with whatever’s happening on the CW or “Gotham.” They recognize that they have the freedom to get weird. And we’re talking about comic books here. As we saw with “Aquaman,” the weird stuff — more often than not — is the best part.