Dir: James Wan
I’ve been burned way too many times by the so-called DCEU. As a lifelong DC fan these are films I want to love, yet have been repeatedly disappointed by, with each disappointment lowering my expectations and changing my way of viewing this universe. The rare saving grace that was ‘Wonder Woman‘ briefly made me think things might change and then the dumpster fire of ‘Justice League‘ proved they wouldn’t. Now with DC films under the new guidance of Walter Hamada, is the tide turning with Aquaman, is it now safe to go back into the water?
The lovechild of a lighthouse-keeper and the queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa) has avoided any dealings with the Atlanteans (unless you count that whole TV show he made a few years ago, but I digress) until allies Meera (Amber Heard) and Vulko (Willem Dafoe) convince him he must stop his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) from uniting all the undersea kingdoms in a war against land-dwellers. That’s the gist of it anyway, there’s a lot more but that thread is the biggie.
Firstly, let’s start with the biggest strength of the film, a key reason why it works at all. DC got the casting completely right with Jason Mamoa. He’s not a top-tier actor but Aquaman has never been a top-tier character, there’s always been a little something laughable about this hero who is often mocked for being only of use when he’s in water and who’s happier in the company of fish than humans. If you want to make that seem like a less stupid concept, the first step is casting in your title role a 6’4″ man who seems to be made of pure muscle and apparently completely understands what kind of film he’s making, that it is silly and that he’s there as much for his charm and wit as for his physique. He’s upgraded from uncool super-friend to the Superman of the seven seas, an oft-bulletproof hero who propels himself through water exactly like Clark Kent soars through the air.
What threatens to sink (sorry, I’ll try to keep these to a minimum though there are loads of suitable nautical terms many critics have had fun with already) the film is the overstuffed, needlessly overcomplicated plot. There’s far too much going on. Beyond the main plot previously mentioned, there’s the quest for a MacGuffin, all the twists in forming undersea alliances and conflicts as well as much of the history of Atlantis and the kingdoms. All this comes after framing the events of the film within the story of his mother’s romance. Plus there’s an extra comic-book favorite villain, high tech pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose villainous origins and development are fully featured as well, which alone would’ve been enough of an antagonist for one movie. It’s too much to fully appreciate, certainly on first viewing. So while it makes sure there’s little chance of calling the film ‘boring’ or ever suggesting ‘nothing happens’, it feels a lot like they’re giving us enough plot for a trilogy of Aquaman movies in one installment just in case they scrap plans for any more.
James Wan clearly loves having the budget to do huge action scenes. There are almost no full conversations, all quiet moments get interrupted with an explosion. Whenever things have gone calm he’s impatient to let it play out, no sentence goes unfinished, questions are left unanswered as guns fire, walls tumble, chaos ensues, returning the film to full-paced action. It’s worth noting that Wan and DC films head Walter Hamada have a long working relationship, so there’s likely a lot of flexibility there as to what Wan was able to get okayed by the big boss. To be blunt, I don’t feel like there was much left on the table at all, it seems like every character, storyline, idea, that was possibly raised as a possibility, is brought into the film at some point.
Except for one huge omission, made all the more conspicuous by its absence. There’s no real link to the rest of the DCEU, it’s more a stand-alone than any of the previous films, and doesn’t lead into anything other than its own potential sequel. If DC films were trying to downplay the rumors of a soft-reboot, they’ve all but confirmed it now.
Wan was the director of the last ‘Fast & Furious’ film, so he’s coming to this straight from a franchise that has built its success on action that pushes the limits of credulity, but here, in this most fantastical corner of the DC universe, he’s not anchored to reality so it gets pretty crazy. True, the story is about a man who can communicate with fish and to acknowledge that there are quite a few knowing jokes, but then it drifts far too often past fun and into silliness.
This is one of the most extensive uses of CGI I’ve seen in a while. Again, yes, it’s an underwater civilization, so fine there has to be some CG to bring that to life, but the quest for the ultra-trident (honestly a MacGuffin) and the conflicting race to unite all the kingdoms brings us into contact with so many odd characters and creatures riding other creatures that it gets a bit much at times. Literally, there are mer-people riding giant seahorses and sharks while being shot at with plasma rays from futuristic subs!
Much of this crazy, oftentimes inventive and beautifully detailed world is thankfully enjoyable nonsense that’s fun to be immersed in, even though it’s of very little substance. With the over-abundance of plot and characters, I’d have hoped for just something in there that has some discernible depth. There are moments that aim to be poignant and emotive, though this is almost all undercut by a lot of the joking and numbing predictability. I didn’t feel genuinely surprised by a single turn in the narrative, there’s sadly nothing that I could point out as a clever ‘twist’ or thrill at all.
The score is actually quite good, it’s dramatic and imposing, everything it should be. Yet there are at least two scenes that swap the score in favour of run-of-the-mill pop songs that I found completely jarring and really dragged the film back down to schlocky action territory, but as with everything else in this film you have to just go with it.
I’ve given up expecting too much from DC anymore, the films that redefined the genre are a thing of the past, affectionately called the Christopher Nolan era. We’re now in a strange ‘elseworld’ where anything goes and we’re just expected to go along with it for a fun ride. Thankfully that’s what I expected, and it’s the only want to view this film, simply check all expectations at the door then dive into the silly overstuffed craziness and try to enjoy the insanity of it all.
I’m not completely done with DC yet, they haven’t done much worthy of my loyalty in recent years but I do still enjoy their films as pure escapist entertainment, even if they repeatedly fail to deliver on any higher levels. Jason Momoa and his co-stars seem to understand what’s needed of them, giving performances that fit perfectly well in this action-packed adventure that looks like it’s going to make Warner Brothers more than enough money to greenlight a sequel, even if it does leave the current iteration of the Justice League hanging on by just two precarious, unlikely threads.