Nothing says Christmas time than a superhero movie starring a guy who can talk to fish. Sure for my pre-holiday article, it sure is strange reviewing this, but that’s the release window that Warner Brothers and DC decided to give their aquatic hero his big screen debut. One thing is clear, Warner Brothers needs a blockbuster right now on their DC side of things, and the holiday window seems like their best bet for exposure. Things have been pretty shaky with DC’s attempts to chase Marvel with the construction of their own cinematic universe. Since it’s official launch with Man of Steel (2013), the DC universe has been received with mixed results. Their movies do well enough at the box office, but their reception from fans and critics are another story. The consensus for most people is that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), just feels like a studio cashing in their noteworthy characters with movies that don’t quite understand what makes those characters great in the first place; at least not in the same way that Marvel treats their characters. This was particularly clear with the failure of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), an overly grim, dramatically hollow spectacle that alienated a fanbase that had long wanted to see the two iconic characters sharing the screen finally. Since then, DC has been soul searching, while at the same time having to fulfill their overly ambitious franchise plans that BvS was supposed to have laid the groundwork for. Things became even more complicated with the failure of Justice League (2017) last year. Hoping to replicate the success of Marvel’s Avengers franchise, DC found the weakness of their franchise plan resulting in their big team film making less money than a standalone Thor sequel. Justice League was supposed to be a game changer and the dream come true for every DC Comics fan who had waited years for it. Instead, it was just another confused product of a movie studio without a sense of direction.
But, not there were signs of hope for DC. The same year Justice League underwhelmed, they also found huge success with their stand alone film for Wonder Woman. Not only did the movie pull in spectacular numbers at the box office (becoming the DCEU’s highest grossing film to date), but it also won critical success as well. As the Justice League plans have crumbled, further complicated by the fact that actors Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck both dropped out of the roles of Superman and Batman respectively, DC and Warner Brothers decided to refocus their DC Universe in a new direction. Seeing as how well Wonder Woman performed on it’s own, the new direction of the studio became to focus on stand alone features rather that could franchise themselves, and hopefully maybe stitch together in the future. Next year, we are getting the first of these stand alone DC films, with the Joker backstory movie from director Todd Phillips with Joaquin Phoenix starring as the Clown Prince. After that, we will also get a Birds of Prey film, with Margot Robbie reprising her role of Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad (2016). And then there is Ava DuVernay’s New Gods film that is currently in early development. It’s different, but all together this could work better for DC in the long run because it allows them to put more focus in the movies themselves rather than concerning themselves with building a shared universe. However, they still must deal with the remnants of the old DCEU. Wonder Woman is currently getting a sequel, reuniting star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins, which is the current best thing they have going. But without a Superman or Batman, it leaves their franchises in doubt. The Flash (currently played by Ezra Miller) has unfortunately seen his film stalled in production multiple times, and any mention of Cyborg getting his own movie has been nil up to now as well. And this is the state that we find the final member of the Justice League, Aquaman, as he makes his debut in a standalone film. The only question now is does this help rise the tide of DC’s fortunes, or is it another anchor that drags them down into the abyss.
A year after the events of Justice League, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has returned to his usual work of protecting the seas from criminals and polluters who wish to cause harm to his world. After saving a submarine crew from a band of pirates, Arthur returns to the home of his father, Tom (Temuera Morrison) to take a break. However he is met there by an Atlantean princess named Mera (Amber Heard), who tells him that there is trouble brewing in the undersea kingdom that Arthur is heir to. Arthur refuses to get involved, because he feels more kinship to his home on dry land, and is angry at the people of Atlantis for having executed his mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), for desertion. Arthur changes his mind after a worldwide tidal wave nearly wipes out his hometown community, no doubt caused by the advanced weaponry of the Atlantean people. He reluctantly joins Mera and arrives at Atlantis, a prosperous megalopolis deep on the ocean floor. There, he meets with his old trainer, Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who gives him a key to finding the lost Trident of Atlantis, a weapon that only the true king can posses. However, before Arthur can embark on his journey, he is arrested and brought before the current king of Atlantis, his half brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Orm is in the middle of consolidating his power in the hopes of becoming Oceanmaster, which will enable him to bring his forces to the surface and conquer the people on land as well, and Arthur’s claim to the throne is getting in his way. Arthur does manage to escape with the aid of Mera, which makes her a fugitive as well, and they must work together in order to find the Trident that can restore order to the Ocean kingdoms. But, in order to keep them from their goal, Orm makes a deal with an land based assassin with a axe to grind of his own against Arthur; the ruthless Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen).
Even before coming to the big screen, Aquaman already has had a lot of negative baggage to overcome. Often the most ridiculed of all the DC super heroes, making the character work on the big screen without coming across as silly was certainly a chore for any filmmaker. Warner Brothers gave the task to Director/ Producer James Wan was given the reigns to do so after he has built his own cinematic universe there at the studio within the horror genre, through his highly successful Conjuring franchise and all of it’s spinoffs. The upside is that Wan is a fan of the character and was willing to give Aquaman a worthy cinematic treatment and not just cash in a paycheck. But, even with Wan’s good intentions, there is still a larger issue that plagues this movie version of Aquaman. For one thing, the movie is a bloated mess with too much CGI mayhem getting in the way of a cohesive narrative. I was getting fairly annoyed while watching this movie because it could never just settle down and let the story find it’s rhythm. It’s as if the movie was so concerned that we wouldn’t understand what was going on so it just stops to explain everything to us; the history of the Atlantean people, Arthur’s backstory, the internal politics, why the Atlanteans can speak underwater and have super agility in the ocean depths. It just piles up so much that I frankly felt exhausted by the end, and this is a 2 1/2 hour movie. Now, to be clear, this isn’t the worst we’ve seen from DC. The movie thankfully has none of the grim, dreariness of the Zack Snyder directed features. It is colorful and appropriately goofy at times. But, there were points where I just wanted the movie to actually stay still and let the visuals tell the story, rather than having everything spelled out for us, and that would have made the film feel less forced than it does.
Naturally, a movie like this is going to need to be compared with the new high bar of the DCEU; Wonder Woman. What made Wonder Woman work so well is that it established it’s world effectively within it’s opening act, and then allowed the story to breath and find itself within the second. That’s why Wonder Woman’s journey was so fulfilling, because we were on that road to discovery alongside her as she learns more about the real state of the world, and the movie hit it’s high point in it’s No Man’s Land sequence which showed her finally making her stand as a super hero; not because it was serviceable for the story nor to get Wonder Woman where she needed to be, but because it allowed us the audience to see her do something heroic for the sake of doing what’s right. That selflessness is what was missing in so many other DCEU movies, and sadly it is missed yet again here in Aquaman. Now, thankfully, Arthur Curry is not a selfish jerk in his narrative, but the movie never gives him that super hero moment that Wonder Woman possessed so well in her story. Instead, DC opted to give him a narrative that fits his namesake in the grand Arthurian tradition, with a man of royal blood finding it in himself to become a king. This, unfortunately, does not play out in the grandest of ways as the movie hits all the cliched notes that this kind of narrative has already brought to the big screen; from Excalibur (1981) to The Lion King (1994). Aquaman never has a save the day moment in his movie, it’s all about protecting his own hide while he goes on a treasure hunt. The movie does have moments that shine, and I’ll give James Wan credit for some well-staged fight scenes, especially a Sicilian encounter with Black Manta, but it’s all sadly drowned out in a movie filled with too many other things going on.
The movie’s best saving grace is Jason Momoa in the lead role. Even while I began to lose interest in his overall story, I still enjoyed him in role of Aquaman. What makes Momoa work here is the fact that he feels so comfortable in the role. He’s never awkward nor monotone in his performance; whenever the movie requires him to be silly, he’s charmingly silly, but when it also calls for him to be serious, he approaches it with a great sense of dignity. More importantly, he just looks like he’s having a lot of fun playing this character. Even simple asides, or a perturbed look, bears a great amount of character through his performance and it helps to carry much of the entertainment value of this movie even through the murkiest of moments. Unfortunately, much of the remaining cast of is a mixed bag. I for one did not like Amber Heard in the role of Mera. Her performance lacks all charisma, and she particularly looks out of place throughout the movie. The biggest problem is that she and Momoa have absolutely zero chemistry, which makes their romantic subplot feel forced and unsatisfactory. For the most part, they just bicker and push each other along, which I know is supposed to create sparks between the two, but it never quite worked. What worked for the likes of Bogart and Hepburn or Ford and Fisher does not work at all here. Patrick Wilson tries his best, and is often saddled with the clunkiest of dialogue that you can really tell he’s trying to deliver with the greatest of effort, but Orm is another in DC’s long line of underwhelming heavy’s. He’s better than Steppenwolf and Jesse Eisenberg’s lame Lex Luthor, but still pales compared to Marvel’s current rogues gallery. I did greatly enjoy the presence of Black Manta, played ferociously by Yahya Abdul-Mateen. He steals every scene he’s in, which were never quite enough, and the movie really comes alive whenever he shows up. Hopefully Black Manta has a future in the DCEU’s grand scheme, because I still think there is a lot more left to uncover with this iconic villain. I also thought that Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison did quite well in their brief moments of screen time and wish there was more of them as well in this packed narrative.
I will also give credit to the world-building that James Wan put into his movie, even if it kind of overwhelms everything else. The Kingdom of Atlantis is very creatively realized. I love the fact that they show how the Atlantean society has evolved with the times the same way that the world above has as well, only with a ocean based twist. One clever visual is seeing the massive structures of the kingdom built on top of the old ruins that made up the old, destroyed kingdom, much like how our modern earthbound cities have their relics of the past preserved as well. It’s a world that also experiences traffic jams, contains sporting venues, and community structures that makes the world both foreign and familiar at the same time. This is where the movie’s visuals do really shine, and it’s good to see DC move away from the dark grays of the Snyder films. However, there comes a point where I felt the movie became too reliant on CGI, as every scene began to feel artificial, especially towards the end. Even the encounter with Black Manta in Sicily looked too fake at points. Some of the best super hero movies know when to balance their visual effects with something real to help make everything feel authentic and cohesive. The effective first act does just that, with a great action set piece on a crippled submarine, where most of the visual treats are done purely through the excellent stunt work, especially when Momoa goes delightfully over the top. However, by the final battle, it becomes abundantly clear that these are just actors dangling on wires in front of a green screen, and the magic begins to wear off, as does the ability to care about what is going on. I can tell that James Wan is still on a learning curve when it comes to directing action, and for the most part he does deliver an imaginative world, but the balance is missing and it does cause one to get weary of what’s being thrown at them, and I for one stopped caring by the end.
I never outright hated what I was watching, but by the end I just didn’t care either. Aquaman’s never really been one of the superheroes I cared one way or another about, and this movie does very little to make me any more interested. That being said, Jason Momoa is definitely the best thing this movie and the franchise has going for it. I do wish that in future Aquaman movies (if there are any, which is likely) that they actually draw back a little bit and not try to force too much into one movie. A full Aquaman vs. Black Manta movie would be especially welcome, as those were the best parts of this one. Also, put a lot more work into the character of Mera, because she gave absolutely nothing to this movie at all. The world-building was adequate enough, but it overwhelmed whatever story they were trying to tell, and my hope is that with all the exposition out of the way, the Aquaman narrative will finally be able to dig into something meatier and more heroic. It’s hard to tell what might happen next given the way that the DC Universe is in flux right now. We know that Wonder Woman is going to continue pretty much unchanged, but everything else is up in the air right now, including Aquaman. To the filmmakers credit, they took a movie that few had any hope for and managed to see it through even as the Universe it was a cog in the machine of began to fall apart. Aquaman’s main issue is not if they managed to bring the character effectively to the big screen; they did, with a big help from Jason Momoa’s charisma. The problem is that the movie does too much; it’s bloated, it has too many subplots that go nowhere, and all the best parts are too few and far between. All in all, the movie is sadly a step backwards after the great leap forward that was Wonder Woman, but thankfully it’s not a step completely off the ledge. It still improves a lot of things that were broken in the old Zack Snyder DC Universe, which on the whole is a positive. I just wish that with a little more focus and some more grounded visuals this movie could have helped Aquaman break through the waves and rise above to become a true bright spot in the DC cinematic canon.