It’s no secret at this point that the DC Extended Universe is on shaky ground. It got off to a seriously rough start, rushed itself to catch up with Marvel, and was too much enamored of Zack Snyder’s particular brand of dark, dumb, nihilistic action. It’s only true, across-the-board success has been with Wonder Woman, the only DCEU film so far that’s managed to embrace the vibrant color, romantic adventure, and actual, legitimate heroism associated with comic books. No surprise that the latest DCEU film, Aquaman, tries to apply this same formula to another one of DC’s long-running heroes. Although the results are sometimes a bit…soggier.
The film opens with the half-human, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) rescuing the crew of a Russian submarine from a raid by pirates. Dubbed “The Aquman” by news reports and social media, Arthur spends his time being a semi-reluctant, semi-responsible hero (he’s not exactly a people person). He’s approached by undersea princess Mera (Amber Heard), who’s seeking his help to stop a plot by Orm (Patrick Wilson), the King of Atlantis and Arthur’s younger half-brother. Orm is intent on allying the undersea kingdoms to bring war to the surface, and Mera believes that if Arthur takes his place as heir to the throne, he can stop a global catastrophe.
The first trailers for the film gave off a serious Black Panther vibe, and there are several parallels between the films. Both are about lesser-known heroes who nonetheless have decades of comics under their name. Both are about the struggles between a king of a nation cut off from the rest of the world and a challenger to that throne, although here the sitting ruler is the antagonist. Both feature arguably overqualified actresses as the protagonists’ mother (Angela Bassett in Black Panther, a surprisingly game Nicole Kidman here).
The biggest difference is that Black Panther was about something. The conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger centered around the very real and very real-world devastating effects of centuries of racism filtered through the lens of modern superhero cinema. Aquaman is only ever about Aquaman. Orm’s justification for warring against the surface is the fact that humanity uses the ocean as a dumping ground, and in this regard we all do indeed have it coming, but that’s brought up once in the first act and literally never mentioned again since it detracts from the film’s true mission: making Aquaman look cool.
Truth be told, there’s a kind of attractiveness about that approach. It seems like a missed opportunity in some ways, but it’s also a little refreshing for a superhero film to take such a straight-forward and simple plan of attack. It’s retro. It’s vintage. It ends up making the film feel about as shallow as a kiddie pool, but to the credit of the writing team and director James Wan, it fully embraces that kind of simplistic adventure energy. Eventually
Wan is slightly out of his element here, though, and the rest of the film after that first tease of depth feels like a kind of course correction, as if Wan realized he might have bit off more than he can chew. Wan is no stranger to genre cinema. He helped create the Saw, Conjuring, and Insidious horror franchises and helmed one of the more recent Fast and Furious films. This is his first superhero fantasy, and he handles it surprisingly well at least from a purely technical and visual standpoint. (That script, though. Woof.)
Wan keeps the film firmly in the DC/Snyder brand but isn’t afraid of color, a bit of ridiculousness, and the more fantastical elements of the source material. His fight scenes are fluid, well-staged, and edited with precision (and not a hacksaw). He has a knack for intense framing and dramatic movement, most notably during an extended sequence in a dark part of the ocean called The Trench that’s teeming with Lovecraftian fish-people. He even has a decent sense of humor and self-awareness about the project, especially considering how hard he’s working to make sure Aquaman is seen on the same level as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
It helps that he has an Aquaman as effective as Jason Momoa. DC Comics has tried for a long time now to rebrand Aquaman as a badass, no small feat given that his main superpowers are ostensibly swimming and talking to fish. Momoa is perhaps the avatar of that approach, a growling, jacked, hair-metal hero covered in nautical tattoos. Who swims really fast and can talk to fish, With his rowdy charisma and devilish smirk, he’s like an earthier, rougher version of Dwayne Johnson, and like Johnson, his force of personality often does most of the work. Even if he isn’t a good enough actor to make the film’s awful script land, his magnetism and athleticism make him worth watching.
He’s matched fairly well by Amber Heard as Mera, a poorly-written character that Heard nevertheless does a lot with. Her origins are barely touched on, as are the nature of her hydrokinetic powers, and she seems to have little autonomy that isn’t connected to one of the male leads. However, Heard has a fierce personality and clearly has done a lot of work to connect with her role and give the character substance. A scene where Mera weaponizes every ounce of liquid in a wine store is filmed with the same intensity as Jean Grey going Phoenix in X-Men: Apocalypse, and it’s awesome to watch both for Heard’s action-hero poses as it is the metatextual humor in the scene’s set-up and execution.
The supporting cast is full of seasoned, talented actors, but many of them are under-utilized or simply not well-suited to the material. Patrick Wilson, for instance, looks the best he has in years but can’t help himself from gleefully chewing up the scenery, Gerard Butler-style. On the other hand, Willem Dafoe as Orm’s advisor Vulko doesn’t seem to be fully present for most of his scenes, barely registering in his role. (But he’s still Willem Dafoe, and that’s often enough on its own). Nicole Kidman is refreshingly here for all of this, however, and she seems like she’s genuinely enjoying herself. She even gets her own kick-ass fight scene in the film’s prologue. Like Heard, she’s dealing with a barely-written character, but her natural charm saves the day.
While the film is well-paced, often outright fun, and its special effects only occasionally dodgy, it’s undone by a horribly clunky and predictable script and a totally by-the-numbers narrative. If not for the commitment of the main cast and the personalities of the leads, the film might even have been sunk completely because of it. It spends far too much time focusing on Orm’s Game of Thrones-style takeover of the undersea kingdoms, a subplot that means little and adds almost nothing to Aquaman’s arc. Similarly, the appearance of Aquaman’s most famous archenemy Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, feels tacked on and extraneous. The film turns him into an afterthought, and it feels like disrespect to the character (although Abdul-Mateen is pretty damn good in the role regardless).
There’s little originality at all in the film. It borrows liberally from everything from Thor: Ragnarok to The Mummy to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But James Wan still brings all those lifted elements together for a whole that’s still entertaining and rejuvenating. It’s a bit on the salty side, sure, but sometimes that kind of empty-calorie extravaganza can sure hit the spot. In the context of the DCEU’s attempt to steer itself into a more vibrant, colorful palette, it succeeds. More impressive, it actually makes us care about and genuinely cheer for a hero that had previously been sort of a laughing stock. Aquaman the film isn’t as deep as the ocean, but Aquaman the man is just as captivating.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-