From Gotham City to Metropolis, it's been a bumpy ride for Warner Bros' series of interconnected films based on DC comic book characters. With next weekend's release of "Aquaman," the studio will turn to the underwater city of Atlantis for signs of a brighter future.
As a standalone movie, "Aquaman" is a sprawling, globe-trotting epic about a half-human, half-Atlantean hero who must foil his sea-dwelling brother's campaign to wage war against the surface world.
But as the latest movie in Warner's DC cinematic universe, it's an opportunity to get audiences excited about a string of upcoming movies, after several of the studios' superhero films failed to generate much enthusiasm.
It's been a year since Warner released "Justice League," it's big-budget superhero team-up flick that disappointed both critically and commercially. Despite boasting a roster of heavyweights including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman (not to mention Aquaman), the movie earned just $669 million worldwide.
For context, that fell short of the global receipts for any of Warner's four previously interlinked DC movies. It was also less than half what any of Disney's three "Avengers" movies have earned.
The failure prompted Warner Bros to shake up the team in charge of DC movies and galvanized an earlier decision to de-emphasize the interconnected nature of the films. The massive success of last year's "Wonder Woman," which was only loosely connected to other DC movies, also drove that decision.
Now, "Aquaman" can test whether Warner will score another hit with a solo superhero movie.
"I think 'Aquaman' is a really important movie for them, and if the China box office is any indication, they've got a mega-hit on their hands that could play well into 2019," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
"Aquaman" drummed up nearly $94 million in its opening weekend in China — making it Warner's best Middle Kingdom debut to date. With a 74 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is also the best-reviewed movie in the DC universe behind "Wonder Woman."
Analysts say "Aquaman" is also getting a boost from DC's choice to cast Jason Momoa in the lead role. The Hawaii-born actor is a fan favorite who had his breakout role as barbarian chieftain Khal Drogo in HBO's hit fantasy series "Game of Thrones."
"There's no better brand ambassador for DC and 'Aquaman' than Jason Momoa," Dergarabedian said. "He's everywhere. He's so excited. I think you can tell, and I think that's infectious."
Forecasting indicates that "Aquaman" will earn about $65 million at U.S. theaters over its opening weekend, and potentially hit $100 million during the full five days leading into Christmas, which falls on a Tuesday this year.
Holiday weekend openings make comparisons difficult, but that would be a very respectable premiere for a live-action superhero movie. "Wonder Woman," Warner's biggest DC hit at U.S. theaters to date, earned $103 million during its opening weekend.
Christmas releases also tend to have legs because many Americans see several movies during the holidays, says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
"I think Aquaman is in that position to open at $60 [million] but still earn $200 to $250 domestically," he said.
That would put "Aquaman" in a league with other solo superhero movie successes like Disney's "Doctor Strange" and Twentieth Century Fox's last Wolverine sequel "Logan." But it would fall short of the total U.S. box office haul for breakout hits like "Wonder Woman" and "Deadpool."
A survey of movie-goers by BoxOffice.com found that 83 percent of them that saw the "Aquaman" trailer are interested in seeing the movie. That compares to 88 percent for Sony's "Venom," which ultimately debuted to $80 million in October.
"Aquaman" does face a somewhat crowded release window. It opens one weekend after Sony's critically acclaimed "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse," and shares a release with Paramount's Transformers spin-off "Bumblebee." Disney's "Mary Poppins Returns" debuts two days earlier.
However, analysts say "Aquaman" will benefit from the fact that Warner hasn't released a DC movie in over a year.
Fans are looking forward to "Aquaman" as the first film since the end of the "Snyderverse," said Alisha Grauso, editorial lead at Atom Tickets. That's the grim and gritty universe crafted by Zack Snyder, who directed 2013's "Man of Steel," 2016's "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" and the ill-fated "Justice League."
The world of "Aquaman" was instead envisioned by James Wan, the director behind the "Saw" horror franchise. According to Grauso, Wan manages to mix "Lovecraftian horror" and "Arthurian legend" into a coherent visual language that amounts to "bonkers world-building."
"It's honestly kind of insane to watch, but it's such a good time from start to finish," she said. "You will definitely not be bored."
That could get movie-goers excited for what's to come. Next year, Warner releases a comedic adaptation of "Shazam!", the DC comic about a boy with the ability to transform into an adult superhero. The studio is also filming an origin story about The Joker, the iconic Batman villain, slated for a 2019 opening.
In 2020, Warner releases a Wonder Women sequel set during the Cold War, as well as the female anti-hero ensemble flick "Birds of Prey." The latter features the return of fan-favorite character Harley Quinn after a well-received debut in 2016's "Suicide Squad."
Grauso thinks it's wise for DC to gravitate towards more self-contained, director-driven movies at this particular point in cinematic history. It's true that Disney and Marvel Studios have made billions on their unprecedented model of decade-long storytelling building up to this year's mega-event "Avengers: Infinity War." Yet recent superhero movie releases have shown that what fans ultimately crave are good stories that are true to the characters.
"You don't have to do the Marvel model to work. Fox showed that with 'Deadpool' and 'Logan,'" said Grauso. "You can have individual, standalone movies that are wildly different form one another and they can still work as long as they're good."