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'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom' swims into theaters this weekend

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

"Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom" swims into theaters this weekend with Jason Momoa back as the ruler of an underwater nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM")

JASON MOMOA: (As Arthur Curry) I'm the king of Atlantis. Half a billion people from every known species in the sea call this place home. But that doesn't mean they all like me.

MARTÍNEZ: This time, Aquaman is facing his nemesis, Black Manta, but the film itself had a nemesis or two on its way to the screen - a high-profile trial involving one of its stars and the changing tastes of moviegoers. And joining me to tell us all about it is someone with a very superhero-sounding name, Mandalit del Barco, NPR's culture correspondent. Mandalit, so I know this "Aquaman" film had a lot of trouble on its way to where it is now. What happened to it?

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Well, you know, there was so much behind-the-scenes drama flooding this movie. There were changes in the DC Studios' superhero strategies, and there were rumors about production reshoots and also fallout from the very high-profile televised defamation trial of co-star Amber Heard. And in court, Heard alleged that her ex-husband Johnny Depp had tried to get her booted from the role.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMBER HEARD: I fought really hard to stay in the movie. They didn't want to include me in the film.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Objection, Your Honor. Hearsay.

DEL BARCO: Some of this came out in Heard's therapist's notes subpoenaed for the trial. She alleged that Jason Momoa came to the set drunk and that director James Wan was hostile. Of course, DC Studios denies all of this, but it's hard to tell yet whether all the bad press will affect turnout for this movie.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the first "Aquaman" - that came out in 2018, which was a glorious year for superhero films. "Black Panther" came out that year, "Avengers: Infinity War." So, I mean, yeah, it had a lot of good company. And "Aquaman," the first one, made $1.1 billion worldwide. Is there a reason for the studio to be concerned about the second "Aquaman" film, this one?

DEL BARCO: Some people wonder if audiences are really tired of superhero movies. I spoke to Jeff Bock. He's a media analyst at Exhibitor Relations.

JEFF BOCK: Now, five years later, we're talking about C-list characters and D-list characters trying to make the same noise as maybe these A-list characters. And that's a big change. The key here is are audiences still on board with Jason Momoa and his Aquaman character, and will it be able to withstand what is sort of the collective comic book quagmire of 2023?

MARTÍNEZ: Mandalit, so tell us about the quagmire that he talks about, the comic book quagmire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, well, you know, this year alone, "Blue Beetle," "The Marvels," "Shazam! 2," "Ant-Man 3," "The Flash" - sorry, A.

MARTÍNEZ: Ouch.

DEL BARCO: I'm sorry. They all had a tough time connecting with audiences. And the only superhero movies that did really well were "Guardians Of The Galaxy 3" and "Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse."

MARTÍNEZ: Of course, Marvel movies - they seem to know what to do with these things. Now, "Aquaman" is going to be the final movie of the old DC universe. Studio head James Gunn is trying to connect, though, the end of that era with his new DC universe, and that starts with his new "Superman" film that's due out in 2025. What are the expectations going forward, do you think, Mandalit, for superhero films in the future?

DEL BARCO: "Superman" could reenergize the excitement again. Jeff Bock says not to worry.

BOCK: Look, these are the Shakespeare characters of our time. Like it or not, they are here to stay. The superhero genre may have taken a step downwards, but there still is nothing to take its place. Sorry, Taylor Swift. Sorry, Beyonce. You're not there yet. Superheroes still rule the box office.

DEL BARCO: And, you know, A, there's hardly any other superhero movies on the horizon for 2024, so "Aquaman 2" really is swimming in his own lane.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's Mandalit del Barco, NPR's culture correspondent. Mandalit, thanks.

DEL BARCO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.