Image owned by DC & Warner Bros. and from Variety
Aquaman is a joke, but sometimes the joke punches away from the man himself. I have periodically found the hero enjoyable and even well written, whether it be the new 52 take by Geoff Johns or his presentation in the Dini/Timmverse Justice League show. Then again, just about anyone from DC’s comic universe works in that animated series so in the right hands, we can laugh along with Arthur Curry rather than at him. Does James Wan’s film accomplish that? Yes and no.
I will give initial credit that compared to the dull, dreary and overly serious experiences of prior DCEU films like Batman v Superman, Aquaman is trying its best to pop in expression and hold your interest in presentation. For all I will say of this film, I was never bored despite its length. For once, this ill-considered cinematic universe is earnestly trying to make you like its world and characters rather than halfheartedly like last year’s Justice League. In essence, Aquaman is Justice League but more consistent and better. It is still not great, nor reached that lofty position that Marvel Studios has down to a science at this point.
Like Spock from Star Trek, Arthur the Aquaman is of two worlds: the surface, our world, and the deep, Atlantis. Having lived most of his life in the surface, he’s prefers to live among us and stay out of the affairs of his mother’s underwater world. Why wouldn’t he? They killed her for treason to the throne, as well as having him with his land father. For those who remember the events of JL last year and you are to be forgiven if you hadn’t, there is some retconning in Arthur’s relation to his homeland below the water and with his love interest/partner in the film, Mera. In the prior film, Amber Heard’s Mera and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman know each other and even met and fought together against Steppenwolf in acquiring the Allspa..I mean Mother Box. The new film states that this is their first meeting. It’s narrative inconsistencies like that that are troubling for building a shared universe but then again, considering how lackluster the prior film is, it’s not the most anguished issue at hand.
Arthur’s half brother,Oram, the heir to the throne of Atlantis wants to unite the various underwater kingdoms to wage war against the surface for incredibly obvious reasons. If you know anything about our sorry state in caretaking for the planet, let alone the ocean, then it’s pretty convincing why Atlantis would want to raise hell from the depths on our sorry asses. Motivation aside, the biggest problem that sinks”ahem” the film for me is the strange yet careless tone and expository nature of the narrative. I mentioned earlier that this was a “more consistent” film than Justice League. I stand by it but it still has some problems. The visual style is where my praise for consistency begins and mostly ends.
Sometimes there’s an genuine attempt at emotion such as the melodramatic but heartfelt love story of Arthur’s parents( Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman). Then there is a short scene with an octopus playing drums. Like the Little Mermaid. It doesn’t help that line delivery by the Atlanteans felt more wooden and silly than even the Shakespearean excesses of Thor’s Asgardians. It didn’t hurt that Iron Man and the entirety of Thor: Ragnarok was there to mock it. Here, it is straightforward in its presentation of Atlantis and while you can congratulate it on owning what it is, you’ll still struggle to stifle laughter both at what you’re looking at, sharks and giant seahorses as steeds, and Patrick Wilson’s Oram proclaiming, “Call me…Ocean Master.” For the record, the audience laughed at these moments and I along with them. It didn’t help that Oram’s comic accurate helmet was hilarious. Like a flamboyant Nite Owl mask from Wilson’s prior superhero role in Watchmen.
Even more frustrating for myself was the uninspired exposition scenes which for a while seemed unending and occasionally, oddly placed like a heart to heart early on with the secondary antagonist Black Manta and his father, all during a high stakes raid on a Russian submarine that Aquaman eventually intervenes in. I know you have to explain to the audience the world and rules of Atlantis, especially for the first aqua-outing in this subseries, but it is inelegant to say the least, especially coming out of Willem Dafoe’s Vulco, a mentor figure for Arthur. It got funny, intentional or not, when these exposition scenes were constantly interrupted by a sudden explosion or ambush, as if the film was reminding itself not to risk boring the audience. By the third or fourth explosive interruption, I was giggling.
Another point against the cinematic Mermaidman is how uninspired and overly similar its story and themes are to other superhero or fantasy narratives. Some seem unavoidable and sort of earn them, like the very obvious connection to King Arthur. Then there is the film’s close narrative structure to this year’s Black Panther, except in reverse. Instead of the outsider heir being the bad guy like Killmonger vs T’Challa, we have the outsider heir being the good guy, Arthur vs Oram. It doesn’t feel fresh enough in execution and aside from the logistics of water being used cleverly as a weapon or source of (ironic) oxygen, it feels as if I’m watching an inferior take on the royal superhero, and that’s not even considering Thor and his movies. Oh, and the middle portion of the film becomes National Treasure: Atlantis edition.
I do feel as if I’m being too harsh all things considered. It is a watch that doesn’t really lag save for some straight up “stand and explain stuff” moments. Momoa does seem to be having fun playing Aquaman and his enthusiasm does help when his role as protagonist felt more reactionary than anything else. I also found myself astonished that out of all the film’s ridiculous images, I bought the image of him proudly wielding the iconic yet silly orange and green suit and yes, riding a giant seahorse.
DC isn’t there yet, but they are I suppose looking in the right direction. Hopefully they reach it before superhero craze’s bubble bursts, though honestly I hope that ain’t the case anytime soon. I will also give props,however loosely, for having a ginormous underwater sea battle in the third act that while overblown and nutty as hell, did seem paradoxically easy to follow what was going on. As loud, bombastic CG battles go, Aquaman is in the upper tier of the excessive variety, if only because it connects with the character’s central struggle ultimately.
I didn’t want DC to fail despite the vitriol I hold for past entries like BVS and Justice League. Even when Aquaman is at its best, my mind wanders back to the unfortunate reality about DC’s cinematic universe, a similar truth to the well received Wonder Woman. This universe is so narratively and thematically fractured at this point, thanks to a lack of care in thinking ahead and in how to adapt a cinematic universe on par with Marvel, I fear no amount of success will be able to make up for its past failings. Think Aquaman did the character and his world justice? Great, he still lives in a world which had Batman and Superman stop fighting over sharing a mother’s first name. Aquaman is fun enough if you can excuse its sillier moments and if you do find that hallowed emotional connection, all the better for you and the like-minded. For me, Aquaman is a mildly waterlogged example of too little, too late. Pardon my likely bias, but Marvel won and it has been doing victory laps for years at this point. Still, a C-worthy adventure.