Talk about a fish out of water scenario…
Approached by an oceanic princess named Mera, the half-human, half-Atlantean, heir to the throne of Atlantis, Arthur Curry, is thrusted on a quest to retrieve the lost Trident of Atlan in order to overthrow King Orm who seeks to wage merciless war upon the surface world.
Back into the DC Extended Universe we go, diving deeper than we ever have before, down to the lost city of Atlantis where finally we have been given the chance to explore comic’s most infamously insane superhero: “Aquaman”. What could have easily devolved into becoming the biggest cinematic meme since, well, Entourage’s Aquaman movie, James Wan’s Aquaman was both an accurately well-represented and faithful departure from its source material, spurred on by a singular filmmaker’s vision (unlike other recent DC films). Taking a character that previously nobody cared less about and crafting a feasible world around said character to correlate different levels of enjoyment out of, Aquaman at least, proved itself to be one of DC’s most creative and adventurous films to date… but, that’s not saying a heap. Aquaman was a lot of things including ambitious and imaginative, but its execution never aligned with its ambitions and its handling never represented its imagination. Aquaman embodied a great film but could never properly express it, leading to something more satisfactory.
To help you understand where I see Aquaman, in terms of quality level, I feel I need to express my thoughts on previous DCEU movies, so to roughly place Aquaman in a fitting and understandable position. On top, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman easily surfaces as the best film in the franchise, working technically, thematically and powerfully entuned with its lead character and the world she thrives in. Then… well, then, DC’s track record really does not add up. Begrudgingly, because there was no other option, Man of Steel would have to come second, purely because it at least was a somewhat smart and unique film controlled by a singular vision (for which all films should be); although said vision from Zack Snyder did not entirely fit the character of Superman as the movie ultimately hit rock bottom in its final act. Third would have to be Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice although it completely misjudged its characters, delivering a tiring compact mishmash of genres with stylish, though shallow, action and ambitious, though shaky, philosophy. Fourth would be Suicide Squad which, despite being complete trash, has a real rough and niche shlocky B-movie appeal that only a select few audiences can enjoy but, at the end of the day, is a turd (and no turd can be polished). And lastly would easily be the heavily incompetent, disappointing waste of time that was Justice League, to which I initially enjoyed, but came to quickly see it for what it truly was – a complete and utter disaster.
So, where would Aquaman come in my DCEU ranking? It’s a little early to tell, but I would have to say it sits close to Man of Steel. Yes, that may mean Aquaman has the potential to be DC’s second-best effort in their eternally shaky connected universe, yet that’s not much to shout about, especially considering how low the competition is.
The interesting thing about DCEU’s top three best efforts, Wonder Woman, Man of Steel and Aquaman would have to be how they’re all solo endeavours delivered by a solo director’s vision. Whereas Batman V Superman catered to the ideas of Zack Snyder and several other conflicting on-set talents, Suicide Squad originally served as a singular idea from David Ayer only to later be butchered by the studio and Justice League suffered from a train wreck of ideas from Snyder, Joss Whedon, several writers and the studio, Wonder Woman, Man of Steel and Aquaman in the meantime were all products of one filmmaker. Although, being that Wonder Woman still stands as the only DC film to work completely on its own merits, when it comes to assessing how Aquaman fares in this troubled franchise, I would have to draw more comparisons with it to Man of Steel.
In fact, Aquaman and Man of Steel have a lot in common; they both have conflicting philosophies within their narratives, they both take place in universes that could easily be separate from the Justice League storyline, they both devolve into CGI fests and they both, most importantly, were rendered by a singular vision with their hearts in the right place. Though the thing that Aquaman had working for it and against Man of Steel would be the pure fact that it’s director’s vision more properly aligned with its character and the world as opposed to the former. Whereas Snyder could never quite crack what made Superman ‘Superman’, James Wan figured out a way to accurately and inventively depict Aquaman for a big screen adventure. What merely edged Aquaman over Man of Steel would be the pure fact that Wan’s underwater superhero film at least knew what worked and what didn’t work concerning the character of Aquaman. And what worked immensely well for the oceanic sea king would have to be the cool, new take on the character delivered almost solely from Jason Momoa.
Say what you want about Zack Snyder and what he’s done to DC cinema over time, but his casting of Momoa as Aquaman really made this character and this movie better than it should have been. Momoa’s Aquaman was a far stretch from the comic book version, appearing gruffer, greasier and tougher with a more “no f*cks” given attitude that seemingly worked. I was sceptical of the portrayal of the character in Justice League but now with Aquaman giving audiences more of an insight into Momoa’s Arthur Curry, I have to say, I am completely sold on the character and furtherly how he’s been moulded into the man depicted onscreen. Momoa did not portray the stereotypical superhero audiences are used to, but still enabled himself to embody the noble and heartfelt side of what makes a hero a hero. And although the writing may have failed the character at a few points (I will get back to that point later) I was satisfied with the charismatic and unique lead of Momoa in Aquaman.
To furtherly comment on the rest of the cast, Amber Heard was fun as Mera and played off Momoa’s Aquaman well, with the two sharing some pretty excellent chemistry. Patrick Wilson was a bit of a stereotypical shouty big bad guy but he delivered the necessary threatening demeanour of Orm and engaged in his sequences well enough. Willem Dafoe and Dolph Lundgren were fine to say the least as Yahya Abdul-Mateen II really sold the hulking threat that was Black Manta. Temuera Morrison was pretty good in the role of Thomas Curry even though the movie only really utilised him as a bookend. Lastly, Nicole Kidman probably stood out as the strongest of the cast alongside Momoa, purely for her dedication to such lunacy her character was thrown through.
The character designs and costuming also really helped to give Aquaman a vibrant and unique look with highlights going to the eventual reveal of Momoa’s Aquaman costume and Orm’s Ocean Master look. Aquaman managed to do the impossible by making comic ridiculousness appear cool and applaudable onscreen with smashes of colours and distinctive looks playing off each other, giving character to characters when the writing could not.
And I think, right there, I have hit the nail on the head: the writing.
It was difficult judging my feelings on Aquaman throughout the movie, from beginning to end. On and off I would think “yeah, I like this” and then “nah, this is not that good”. And for a while, I could not entirely put my finger on what was wrong about Aquaman and why the movie did not exactly work for me, but then I realised through dialogue, certain scenes and character depictions, what the problem with the movie was. Aquaman, plain and simple, was just not a well-written movie and suffered predominately from its screenplay.
Now, on the surface, Aquaman’s screenplay problems could be acknowledged in how the entire movie was basically a poorly cobbled together mismatch of other more successful adventure films like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones and (these are Momoa’s words, not mine) Romancing the Stone. Yes, Aquaman can be seen as problematic in how it forcibly wedged all these grander scaled blockbusters together to make something new, but the movie’s bigger writing problems can be seen as deeper than just failed influences and soft homages. Aquaman was not a well-paced, ‘easy-to-watch’ two-and-a-half-hour film because it just did not know what it wanted to say or how to say it. Granted, I felt the movie to be fun enough and made more sense narrative-wise as compared to other DC films (*cough* Batman V Superman *cough*) but it did not necessarily go about telling its story in the most cohesive ways. Aquaman felt ridiculously bogged down for multiple reasons.
The characters in Aquaman were handled pretty poorly. Other than the titular Aquaman, almost nobody in the movie felt like they were given any effort or incentive from the writing team to make said characters pop or appear more expressive. As much as I liked Heard’s Mera, the character was basically a blank sheet of paper, as was Dafoe’s Vulko, only appearing bright and vibrant when onscreen with Momoa’s more stimulating Arthur. Sure, Arthur’s parents, Thomas Curry and Atlanna, and the supporting villain, Black Manta, were given investing arcs for the audience to gravitate towards them, although from within the mayhem of the larger plot, their characters really just appeared like afterthoughts, given not enough emotional attention.
For the most half, a huge amount of the characters were only utilised for heavy exposition sequences with particular acknowledgment directed towards Dafoe’s Vulko. Moments of the movie would just shunt to a holt so that a character could explain a large chunk of backstory that realistically audience members could have pieced together separately without the overloaded explanations. These exposition moments were only made worse by the fact the script would take its time explaining the details of a MacGuffin like the Trident but would not explain more pressing matters like why Arthur was the only one who could converse with fish and why Mera was the only one who could control water. And yeah, sure, the comic books would have the answer to most these questions, but this film should be able to explain the things it needs to to general audiences and leave out the little details that are painstakingly unnecessary to the plot.
To furtherly pick on certain scenes in Aquaman, the movie generally felt like it was missing connective sequences that would have made certain moments either more interesting or emotionally understandable. For example, the mentor/mentee relationship between Arthur and Vulko was never felt as their initial arguably important first meeting never actually featured. The duo’s moments between one another felt rushed and ham-fisted as the only time the two characters did connect was when Arthur would be played by a younger, much weaker actor in comparison to Momoa. Most relationships and alliances never felt real in Aquaman as the movie’s screenplay never felt complete. The vastness of the tale just completely stretched over more pivotal, smaller moments in exchange for spectacle which consequently never felt earned.
Aquaman seemingly wanted so much from its audience without putting enough thoughtful ingenuity into its storytelling, character work and themes – especially its themes. Now, I have tried for the whole review not to make this comparison, but it’s reached the point where I am unable to keep tight lipped about how strongly James Wan’s Aquaman not only compares to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther but also differs. Strange how the two comic book films featuring hidden mythical kingdoms with a royal protagonist have come to bookend 2018 cinema, but here we are. And sure, the similarities between the two films are hauntingly obvious, however its where the two differ that makes this comparison way more fascinating and also marks why and how Aquaman does not completely work, narrative-wise.
Now, I’m not a Marvel fanboy who complains about how good the MCU is compared to the DCEU, however I felt comparing Black Panther to Aquaman would really help to show the latter movie’s faults in a more complete and understandable manner. Aquaman was like if the protagonist of Black Panther was Killmonger with T’Challa’s values and the antagonist was T’Challa with Killmonger’s values. Basically, Aquaman was Black Panther in reverse, though evidently not as well-realised as to the themes it tried preaching. Similar to Killmonger, the villain, Orm, had an extremely understandable case he was arguing for to fuel his motivations and intentions: Orm basically wanted to protect the ocean from human pollution, which was a great, sympathetic and understandable scheme… although, it was not particularly portrayed as being a real problem. With Killmonger, his plight felt way more real and powerful for several reasons; Killmonger wanted to liberate African people around the globe to which could be understood by audiences because the film featured the suffering of African people throughout – Aquaman, meanwhile, rarely ever showed the effects of global warming or pollution as the oceans appeared continuously clean and no character felt threatened by the very real threat of pollution. If Aquaman was to show the city of Atlantis to have been bleached or the children poisoned by the human’s constant dumping of trash, then yes, Orm’s point would have been way more understandable. Also, unlike Killmonger, Orm was introduced in the movie as the current king of Atlantis with no suffering or effort to get him to said position. In Black Panther, audiences had to watch Killmonger’s infinite, brutal climb to reach the top of the food chain in which gave Killmonger humanity as a guy literally putting his blood, sweat and tears into achieving his goal – Orm, meanwhile, sat on a throne for the majority of Aquaman with no sense of blood, sweat or tears to reach his own goals.
And you would think that maybe then, Arthur would take the character arc of Killmonger, being that he’s an outsider of royal blood, thrusted on a mission to overthrow Orm, similar to Killmonger and his plight to overthrow T’Challa… but that does not particularly happen. Aquaman goes on his mission to stop Orm, not because of a moral code or an emotional need to do so, but more because he’s a superhero and that’s just how the superhero story goes. There was never much back and forth between Arthur and Orm, despite both characters having the ability to actually bounce off each other remarkably well – Arthur and Orm could have been the best hero and villain combo since T’Challa and Killmonger, but never did they clash in the way the narrative should have allowed them to.
Then there’s also the nation of Atlantis and how the community also played into the film’s thematics and confrontation between Arthur and Orm. The thing is that Atlantis never felt like a fully well-realised nation – the underwater society was so ambiguous in how they functioned and operated as a united force. Never were there sequences where the city felt like a character onto its own like Wakanda or Gotham or even Asgard – Atlantis just felt like another place on the map the characters had to travel to. And you would think that the way Atlantis was portrayed in Aquaman is not a measure of the narrative’s quality… but it really is. Not giving a voice to the Atlantean people made Arthur’s ascent to the crown incredibly jarring and Orm’s villainy questionable. Never did the film show whether the Atlanteans agreed with Orm’s views or sided with Arthur’s perspective (not saying he even really had one). In fact, the only moment the Atlanteans played a role in the film they cheered for Orm and booed for Arthur, which made me think that maybe Orm was not much of a bad king after all. If Orm was the real bad guy in Aquaman he would have been depicted more as a tyrant but in the actual movie the people seemingly adored him which made the whole movie, in general, so debatable on whether Arthur, Mera and Vulko were even doing the right thing at all by overthrowing him. If anything, Arthur was closer to villainy than Orm; depicted as a drunk outsider who, for no good reason, decided to trash Atlantis’ heavily respected and revolutionary leader, because… I don’t know. Aquaman did a better job making the case for why humanity should be wiped out by the Atlanteans rather than why the two worlds should unite as one… and I do not think for a second that that was intentional on the filmmaker’s part.
Aquaman was just genuinely so messy and incoherent in what it was trying to accomplish. The movie focused on being more just a fun ride than actually cracking into politics that honestly could have been interesting to explore in the long run, similar to Black Panther. And I’m not saying Aquaman should have aspired to be more like Black Panther (I mean, Black Panther was smart enough not to let Pitbull remix Toto’s Africa… just saying), but Aquaman suffered from being so ambitious and vast in adventure that it was unable to be so ambitious and vast in themes. Ultimately, Aquaman was just one big live action video game going from checkpoint to checkpoint to boss battle – LITERALLY, that’s all Aquaman was: a large-scaled video game. And if you like sitting in a bean bag at your mate’s house and watch them play Uncharted on a God mode setting (don’t hate me – I don’t play much video games), then yeah maybe you’ll like Aquaman.
Before I wrap up, I would like to quickly touch on special effects and whether or not the CGI made Aquaman or broke it. Look – this film would have been impossible to make without CGI. It’s incredible what visual effects artists can do nowadays and, for the most half, Aquaman’s CGI was really good. I take into account how difficult water is to visually generated, so therefore the entire film was quite possibly a near impossible task to make flawless but the underwater sequences were probably the film’s best-looking CGI moments. A lot of effort was placed into the underwater cities, the sea creatures and the general world of Atlantis, even though that came at the cost of some of the actors looking partly ridiculous in sequences, obviously bobbing up and down on wires in front of green screens. However, being that the actor’s sold the seriousness and strength of their performances, the character’s singular wonky CG appearances had the ability to be overlooked in the long run. My main problem with the CGI came in how it was used above the surface with a certain few sequences of Aquaman taking place on a jetty outside of a lighthouse to which was not only visually horrendous but so unnecessary. Also, the de-aging effects placed on Temuera Morrison in a few early scenes were just incredibly horrible and rather jarring to view.
Although, to end on a more positive note, I would certainly like to applaud James Wan on his excellent direction behind the action sequences. Each fight scene appeared visually separate to the last and were all thrilling and exceptionally well-constructed, especially one taking place in Sicily for which burst so extravagantly onscreen as the film’s obvious highlight.
You see, I didn’t hate Aquaman, but instead I was just more disappointed. The movie could have been DC’s big break back into making great visionary films that could compete fairly with Marvel, and although I would say it’s a step in the right direction for the DCEU, Aquaman just allowed itself to get caught up in a riptide of its own making too many times. There’s a great film in Aquaman somewhere, and I have definitely not lost faith in James Wan, but in summary, this film may just not have been handled by the right people and could have done with some revisions to allow it to run a bit more smoothly and fluently. To put in perspective for you; there was a sequence in Aquaman where, underwater, Mera told Arthur he stunk to which Arthur sniffed his pits and was immediately put off by the stench – its moments like these where, in a better film, I would have laughed and kept going with the adventure, but the fact I stopped and thought about the science behind whether or not that was possible, made me think that even at its most distilled form Aquaman was a film unable to perform even the most mundane of tasks – keep the viewer’s engaged. Aquaman was not the pleasant cruise we all hoped it to be… instead it hit rough seas, giving its audience sea sickness with no cure.
Aquaman sadly belongs in the… KINGDOM OF THE CRIMINALLY DULL…
- Muller, M 2018, Aquaman (2018), IMP Awards, TMDb, viewed 2 January 2019, <http://www.impawards.com/2018/aquaman_ver11.html> (Featured Image)
- Morris, W 2018, ‘Aquaman’ Review: Our Hero Swims. His Movie Sinks., The New York Times, The New York Times Company, viewed 2 January 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/movies/aquaman-review.html>