REVIEW: Aquaman is a Familiar Step in the Right Direction
I didn’t really enjoy Aquaman, yet I didn’t hate it either. To use swimming as an analogy for the films quality, it neither sinks nor swims. It simply floats, bobbing up and down, inoffensively.
I’ve hated some of the previous DCEU movies, truly hated them. Suicide Squad, Batman V Superman, Man of Steel. The best DC movie is still probably Wonder Woman, and I personally consider that movie to just be “fine”.
To sit here and write about how Aquaman is neither refreshingly amazing or offensively terrible is in fact a somewhat pleasant experience, at least compared to what the previous DC films have done for me. No matter how “middle-of-the-road” I think it is, it’s a step in the right direction for DC.
I compare this movie to the first Thor movie, from 2011. Both focus a lot on characters with backstories tied heavily to mythology, both titular characters hail from royal bloodlines and both have god-like elemental abilities. While Thor’s status as a literal God makes him one of the MCU’s strongest characters, I couldn’t say the same for Aquaman. Sure, the guys no pushover, but his powers have always been outclassed by other members of the Justice League. He’s not as smart as Batman, he’s not as fast as The Flash and not as strong as Wonder Woman. Plus, everyone in the league is then equally outclassed by Superman, pushing Aquaman even further down the hierarchy.
Thor, however, was relatively un-interesting to most audience’s to begin with. He was very few people’s favorite character until the recent one-two-punch of Ragnarok and Infinity War re-instated Thor as an interesting, compelling character. My long-winded point here is that, while I had virtually no excitement for Aquaman, I hoped it’d do the same for the character as Ragnarok did for Thor: to make him an interesting, compelling character, much unlike many of his colleagues in the Justice League.
Let’s start with the good. On a performance level, this film is solid. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard are serviceable as their two lead characters Arthur and Mera. The relationship they were obviously going to have is pretty ham-fisted, yet has some sweet moments. The problems arise with the films dramatic tone changes. Last week I wrote about how Into the Spider-Verse masterfully switched from tone to tone. One moment it was action packed, dramatic and the next it was somber and emotional. Aquaman attempts these same sort of tone shifts only less successfully. One scene will feature a dramatic, over the top coliseum match between the two heirs to the throne, then just a few minutes later it changes to Arthur and Mera having an almost sitcom quality argument in the middle of a desert. It clearly wants to be both action packed and comedic at the same time, which would work if it was handled better. James Wan is a well renowned horror director and there are sections of this movie that clearly benefit from his talents in relation to that genre. This tone shifting, however, is not one of them. It is ham fisted, un-natural and makes the movie feel jarring and dis-jointed. It evens out towards the second half, during the build up to the climactic “end-of-the-world” battle that these films often feature, mainly because the comedic tone is abandoned, which is probably for the best.
There are solid moments, however, in which tone is utilized well. A particular moment involving some motorcycle tough guys in a bar is a brief highlight and clearly shows that the film-makers had at least some level of self-awareness. Despite the fact I cringed more than I laughed during this scene, I respect the effort made, hence why I’m not completely dismissive.
The story is nothing new. You’ve seen this film before, but we all know execution is everything. The two leads carry the film well enough and it has some actual heart. The film works best in its quieter moments, where Arthur is more than just a tough guy and in fact gets to reflect on his life. His status as a half breed is interesting, Atlantis’s strangely backwards attitude towards discrimination is odd but oddly relevant to today’s world. That’s about all in this film that is culturally relevant, but that’s not necessarily a downside.
The visuals in this film are impressive. Atlantis is easily my favorite part of the movie, mainly because of the lore surrounding it. The seven different kingdoms, the story of how Atlantis fell below the sea. Some of it is buried in heavy exposition, some of it is extremely generic, yet I’m a sucker for mythology. What can I say.
Visually it is quite appealing. It’s a dynamic, constantly moving underwater metropolis. The underwater element is utilized to full effect, especially during action scenes. A completely rotating, 360 degree camera is utilized during fight scenes, truly replicating an underwater environment and making at least some of the action scenes engaging and unique. Gone are the air bubbles from Justice League, thank god. This movie proves they were completely necessary and their inclusion will continue to remain a mystery. Who thought they were a good idea? Some of the sound mixing is a bit dodgy. They wanted to replicate the underwater effect so much that some of the dialogue is distorted, however slightly. This distortion can be annoying and leads to some lines just being incomprehensible. It’s not a huge issue, just a result of their attention to detail backfiring.
Despite this, it is rather easy to lose yourself in the world that this movie crafts. I don’t consider it to be a huge achievement on the films behalf, any film with a budget even remotely this big should have no problem with world building. Yet, after witnessing the empty, lifeless and bland world of Mortal Engines (2018) last week, I’m more than willing to credit this movie for making the environment even remotely engaging.
The villains in this film are…interesting. Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is underused and disposable. His backstory contains generic elements that we saw in Spider-man (2002), which is ironic since Willem Dafoe is such a prominent character in both that film and Aquaman. While Spider-man is one of the better superhero origin stories, a 2018 film borrowing direct story beats from a film released more than 15 years ago does not a compelling character make. His aesthetic is cool, the laser vision is…cool? Other than that, he was merely an angry pirate.
Patrick Wilson’s King Orm is another throwaway villain. He also spends a lot of his time screaming, yelling and being a general ass. He’s not charismatic or engaging in any way. Thankfully, the ending is a nice change of pace in relation to his character. I was pleasantly surprised at what happened to him at the end and the possibilities moving forward. It also, without spoiling anything, signifies some character growth amongst Arthur himself, which works well.
Comparing this movie to Thor was not a mistake. This movie feels like it belongs in “Phase One” of the DCEU, if there was one. It is a basic, generic superhero origin story that should be setting up the big team-up movie. The DCEU is so out of whack that a film which should have helped launch the cinematic universe comes out 5 years after the first installment. I understand that they do not want to copy the MCU, perhaps, thus the decision was made to push Justice League out as fast as possible. Or they just wanted to catch up on years of building a cinematic universe as quickly as possible. I couldn’t tell you.
What I could tell you is that Aquaman’s introduction in Justice League is shallow and leaves much to be desired. Having Aquaman come before Justice League would have saved several minutes of screen time in Justice League as well as having Aquaman be a viable powerhouse and worthy addition to the team. A few key story elements would have had to be changed in Justice League, but if that film needs anything, it’s more polish.
While Arthur Curry’s origin story is not terrible, it’s out of place. It shares qualities with films released over a decade ago and is extremely dated in several aspects of story-telling. The film-making is at times clunky but at other times attempts to push boundaries with varying degrees of success. I respect how different this film is from the other DCEU films and, while I can’t comment on how involved WB were with the film, I like the idea of them giving directors creative freedom. I like what Aquaman represents more than I like the actual film, which is a shame, but makes me more hopeful for the future of DC movies.