It’s a bittersweet time for fans of the DC Extended Universe’s (DCEU). On the one hand, the DCEU is being rebooted and rebranded into the DC Universe (DCU) after 10 years of tepid critical and box office response. On the other, fans of the DCEU are saying goodbye to current iterations of beloved DC Comics characters like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and possibly Jason Momoa’s record-breaking turn as Aquaman (2018’s Aquaman remains the highest-grossing DCEU film to date). But as fans shower praise on the actors, directors, and writers of some of the more beloved DCEU properties, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom director James Wan is showing gratitude to an often-undervalued asset in the filmmaking community: Visual Effects (VFX) teams.
It’s no secret that superhero movies rely heavily on special effects. But it takes real skill to make flying Kryptonians, lightning-wrangling goddesses, and deep-sea battles to look seamless. But for movies where the bulk of the action takes place in otherworldly settings like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, directors like James Wan depend even more on VFX teams to bring their illustrious visions to life.
“For something like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and the first Aquaman, so much of the movie is visual effects,” said Wan. “So much of the world is created in a synthetic environment. That immediately allows you to set the different depths and levels.”
Wan’s statement makes even more sense in the context of the Aquaman films, both of which he directed. In the sequel to the 2018’s blockbuster, Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman defends Atlantis and the world-at-large against the villainous Black Manta. But this time Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wields the Black Trident, a mystical weapon with the power to release a malevolent force upon the world, forcing Aquaman to form an alliance against the brother he imprisoned in the first movie. Needless to say, this kind of underwater adventure isn’t possible without a visionary director like Wan at the helm. But rather than highlight his own contributions to the project, he’s eager to shower praise on the VFX teams that he’s worked hand-in-glove with.
“I totally feel like people can be very dismissive of CGI and visual effects and stuff like that. But there’s so much artistry, there’s so much love, and passion, and just so much hard work that goes into these movies,” said Wan. “And that’s definitely the case with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Myself and my team, we work really hard to try and put out the best-looking stuff out there. I definitely feel like they are the unsung heroes of these kinds of movies.”
Wan’s not wrong. Over the past few years, more VFX workers have been speaking out against the long working hours, unrealistic deadlines, and low pay they’ve been forced to accept. And when special effects aren’t up to audience standards, it’s the VFX teams that are unfairly dragged by fans who don’t understand the brutal conditions those teams are working under.
Here’s how it works. When a film studio like Sony, Marvel, or Warner Bros. Discovery has a film project in the works, they’ll request for VFX studios to submit a bid to work on said project. Competition among the VFX studios is fierce, creating a race to the bottom where often the VFX studio charging the lowest price often wins the coveted contract.
But a low winning bid doesn’t negate the amount of hard work needed to fulfill the obligations of the contract. This has led to frontline VFX workers working horrendous hours for paltry paychecks. Such abominable conditions have led to a more and more VFX teams talking about and choosing to collectively organize. The latest such move came this September during the dual writers and actors strikes, when Marvel Studios VFX workers voted unanimously to join the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union.
“It doesn’t matter how big of a cog they are, if you take one out and the machine wouldn’t function,” said Wan when speaking in a general sense about the importance of strong VFX teams. “Filmmaking is such a process that you need everyone to be able to contribute to it. You couldn’t make a movie like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom without visual effects.”
But if jaw-dropping special effects and hearthrobs likes Jason Momoa and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II aren’t enough to get you to the theaters for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, then promises of one-of-a-kind movie-going experience might be.
“I would say, if [fans] enjoyed the first movie, it’s really just an extension of the first film in a lot of regards,” said Wan. “The movies that I make, the movies that I direct, I make them a fully cinematic experience so that they can be experienced and seen on the bigger screen. I do think that this movie is truly, truly designed for the big screen.”
For all the DCEU’s bumps and bruises, the Aquaman franchise has remained a bright spot in the cinematic universe. Whether Jason Momoa will be back in the DCU to play the coolest version of Aquaman ever remains to be seen. As for director James Wan, he’s looking forward to his next project coming out in early 2024. But it will be a while before Wan takes a seat in the director’s chair again.
“My next project that I’m producing is Night Swim. That’s the [supernatural horror film] that’s coming out in January. But in terms of directing, I’m taking a break. I’m taking a long nap!”
After completing the visual and storytelling spectacle that is Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, that’s a nap James Wan more than deserves.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom hits theaters on Friday, December 22, 2023.