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Aquaman

Posted December 23, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

A lot of ink has already been spilled about the DC Cinematic Universe and what WB could possibly do with it after the catastrophic underperformance of Justice League, to say nothing of the egregious mismanagement that brought us to this point. How to course-correct? For now, the answer appears two-fold.

First, DC is shifting their focus toward television. The CW “Arrowverse” is still going strong, and DC/WB is leaning hard into original content for their DC Universe streaming service. Meanwhile, Marvel’s Netflix shows are getting dropped with extreme prejudice and “Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.” is limping into a sixth season after killing off its own raison d’etre, Agent Coulson (though admittedly, he’s been dead before). We all knew this at the time and hindsight has only made it more obvious, but pivoting to TV — playing to their strengths and Marvel’s weaknesses — was the right move for DC all along.

(Side note: You may have noticed that the long-in-development Flash movie with Ezra Miller still hasn’t materialized. I seriously doubt that’s a coincidence.)

Secondly, it appears that DC has decided to finally give Superman and Batman a much-needed break. Superman has been relegated to supporting player status on “Supergirl”, and there’s no sign of when or if we’ll ever see Henry Cavill don the cape again. As for Batman, the upcoming movie from Matt Reeves has been in limbo for some time now, and the prequel series “Gotham” (which shouldn’t even count, but whatever) is set to wrap up next season. And of course we can’t forget the whole “Fuck Batman” incident.

So, in place of continuing to milk their two most famous perennial cash cows, DC has taken to developing the lesser-known and underappreciated characters in their stable. Heaven knows it worked well enough for Wonder Woman. Yes, Suicide Squad was a fiasco, but retooling it under James Gunn is a good first step. There’s also the upcoming Birds of Prey movie, we’ll see how that works out. Oh, and there’s Shazam! coming up in a few months, that looks pretty good.

But right now, we’ve got Aquaman, in which Jason Momoa plays DC’s King of Atlantis. Which, incidentally, would make over 70 percent of the world’s surface his domain. He’s also super-strong, super-durable, super-fast underwater, his access to the world’s sunken treasures makes him obscenely wealthy, and he has instant telepathic command over all the millions of species of sea creatures and all their various abilities.

Aquaman is so insanely overpowered that it’s a grave injustice he’s been treated as a laughingstock for so long. Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t help that comics writers for decades have struggled for any clue about what to do with him — his origin story has changed a few times, ditto for his rogues gallery, and he doesn’t have any huge landmark comic storylines to speak of. But what this movie does have is Jason Momoa, an actor with seemingly endless charisma, jumping into superhero cinema at a time when non-white superheroes are all the rage. There’s also James Wan, the red-hot director who pretty much single-handedly invented the modern horror genre before branching out into action with the respectable Furious 7.

So what have we got here? Well, we’ve got a two-and-a-half-hour movie is what we’ve got. Which means that I have to try and compress an hour’s worth of exposition into a few paragraphs. Buckle up.

Thousands of years ago, the technologically advanced kingdom of Atlantis was destroyed by its own hubris and greed. While the kingdom was rebuilt on the ocean floor, its king (Atlan, played by Graham McTavish) took his royal trident and withdrew to places unknown so he could die in self-imposed exile as penance for his failure to lead. In his place, rule over Atlantis was divided between seven kingdoms.

One of the kingdoms is led by Orm (our villain, played by Patrick Wilson) who wants to start a war with the surface dwellers who’ve been slaughtering marine life and polluting the oceans. He’s assisted in this by the powerful King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) and his vast armies. So why don’t they just go ahead and start the war?

Well, Atlantean law (I can already hear you dozing off, so try to stay with me) dictates that only the wielder of Atlan’s royal trident can command all seven armies of all seven kingdoms. In place of the lost trident, full command can only be given to an Ocean Master elected by at least four of the seven kings. Thus Orm spends most of the second act going to war with the rest of Atlantis, conquering the two kingdoms he needs until he has the political power to become Ocean Master and start his war.

So, to repeat: Why don’t Orm and Nereus simply go ahead and start the war with their own armies? Because shut up, that’s why.

Let’s back up a bit. About thirty years before all of this, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) was the queen to one of Atlantis’ kingdoms, and she fled from an arranged marriage to go hide in the surface world. There, she met and fell in love with a lighthouse keeper (Tom Curry, played by Temuera Morrison), and the two bore a son shortly before Atlanna was dragged back to Atlantis. There, as punishment for her forbidden romance with a surface-dweller, she was forced to marry her intended husband, bear him a son — our buddy Orm, as it turns out — and then be sacrificed to the unknown terrors of The Trench.

In the absence of his mother, young Arthur Curry was raised by his father and secretly mentored by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the Atlantean grand vizier to Atlanna’s family. And with all of his training and superpowers, Arthur Curry — dubbed “Aquaman” by social media — has been… well, he seems to have a thing about fighting off pirates, but he’s mostly just been fucking around. Then Mera (Nereus’ daughter, played by Amber Heard) shows up to solicit Arthur’s help so he can track down Atlan’s trident and stop his deranged half-brother. Not that Arthur is especially keen to rejoin the civilization that executed his mother, but he doesn’t want billions of people to die, either.

Am I missing anything? Oh, right: Black Manta.

Manta and his father (respectively played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Michael Beach) lead an elite pirate crew that commandeer a Russian submarine at roughly the ten-minute mark. They use machine guns in this submarine, which immediately sends a message about the level of intelligence we’re dealing with here. Manta’s father then stops the entire scene dead in its tracks for a thoroughly goddamn useless exposition dump. In response to Aquaman’s sudden intervention, Manta snarls directly into the camera “That’s no man.” Our hero then proceeds to board, taking several bullets, bladed weapons, and even a goddamn RPG to the chest; all at point-blank range, all without a scratch on him.

At this point — again, this is roughly the ten-minute mark — if you don’t go and ask for your money back, you’ve got no excuse. Either you’re completely on board or you’re better off abandoning ship.

The movie has no less than four credited writers (Geoff Johns, James Wan, and Will Beall on story; with Beall and horror screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick sharing screenplay credit), and this was very clearly a screenplay designed by committee. The story is ridiculously convoluted, sprawling in countless different directions, held together by massive exposition dumps every five minutes. It’s astounding how the film resorts to so many transparent and contrived shortcuts, yet still includes half an hour’s worth of redundant scenes and ham-fisted exposition.

To be clear, I completely understand that the filmmakers are building this massive, vibrant, fully-realized and multifaceted world under the sea. They’ve clearly put a ton of thought and effort into building the world of Atlantis, and I respect that. There is so much jaw-dropping production design here, and so much history to this advanced culture as old as civilization itself, and all of that is easily enough to fill a 143-minute movie. But when a movie is that long and it still feels rushed, somebody done fucked up.

Comparisons have already been made to Green Lantern, another bloated and confused DC cinematic mess, but I don’t know that the comparison is entirely fair. Atlantis feels much more expansive and fully-realized than the Green Lantern Corps ever did, the action scenes are far and away more effective (seriously, for a horror director, James Wan is a solid action director), and the central theme of unity between land and sea — however trite — is much more focused and better-utilized than any half-baked thematic ideas in Green Lantern.

Perhaps most importantly, there is so much more ambition and effort on display here. I’m convinced that nobody — from director Martin Campbell and Ryan Reynolds on down to the last extra — ever really wanted to be in Green Lantern. I’m just as convinced that everybody in Aquaman really wanted to be in Aquaman.

With all of that said, there is one crucial point of contention that I will give to both movies: The lead characters are simply too special for their own good. Hal Jordan was the hero of his movie simply because he was chosen by his ring and that was the end of it. Arthur Curry is the hero simply because he’s the mongrel bastard of an Atlantean and a surface-dweller. Granted, Hal’s origin story is all about him getting chosen by superpowered jewelry and Arthur is the scion of royalty, so both movies had to deal with “Chosen One” narratives getting baked into the premise. Also, it’s a lot more subtle in this picture, as Arthur’s half-blooded status opens him up to no end of grief from any number of other characters. So at least it’s something he has to deal with, serving as a narrative and thematic cornerstone for the film far more effectively than in Green Lantern.

That said, what really turns things around for Arthur in this movie is his telepathy with marine life. It’s a power that no other Atlantean seems to have, he never actively does anything to earn or improve upon it, and nobody ever thinks to explain how it works or how Arthur got it. The best we get is an implication that he was born with this ability. So — as with Green Lantern — our hero ultimately comes out victorious simply because he was ordained by fate/God/the plot/whatever. It’s more subtle in this movie, but once you see it, you’ll never not see it.

That isn’t even getting started on Arthur’s inconsistent treatment at the hands of the script. Through pretty much the entire movie, Arthur — by his own admission — is a blunt instrument favoring brawn over brains. In one scene, we find out that he never knew Pinocchio was ever a book. And then, not even five minutes later, he shows an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Roman generals and leaders. Seriously.

Mera fares even worse, I’m sorry to say. I mean, I get what the filmmakers were going for: A kickass female lead to serve as an intellectual foil for Arthur, and a native Atlantean who learns to overcome her prejudices about surface-dwellers. The filmmakers were certainly not shy about getting her involved in the action scenes, going so far as to let her rescue the male lead at times! They even gave Mera telekinetic control over water, a power that used to be in Aquaman’s repertoire as clearly established in Justice League. (Then again, aside from one throwaway line, it appears that these filmmakers are as eager as the rest of us to pretend that Justice League never happened.)

Look, I love Amber Heard. I’ve been standing up for her since Drive Angry, and God knows it hasn’t always been easy. But she was not cut out for this. She’s got no chemistry with Momoa, she can’t portray the character with any kind of consistency, and she simply doesn’t have the talent to elevate this script.

In fact, the entire cast can be pretty well divided between those who could and could not elevate the material. Patrick Wilson, for example, is a fine actor who’s got a solid working relationship with Wan, but this is simply not the kind of bad guy he’s fit to play (see: The 2010 remake of The A-Team). Likewise, Dolph Lundgren is so far out of his element and given so little to work with, his performance in Creed II looks Oscar-worthy by comparison.

Compare that to Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman, both of whom turn in memorable performances with precious little screen time. Willem Dafoe is another standout, and Randall Park makes enough of an impression to carry over into the (presumed and yet-to-be-officially-announced) sequel. We’ve also got showstopping voice-over cameos from Djimon Hounsou, John Rhys-Davies, and Julie freaking Andrews! Seriously, all three of them were a joy to hear from, and Andrews’ character in particular was a stand-up-and-cheer highlight of the film.

But then we have Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who’s somewhere in between the two camps. It’s like he doesn’t have the talent to elevate the material, and he’s smart enough not to try. Instead, he goes for chewing the scenery like it’s going out of style, portraying the most relentlessly over-the-top single-minded villain out for vengeance since Sho’Nuff. I’m a little torn on this portrayal of Aquaman’s most iconic nemesis, but they’re setting him up for a sequel, his action scenes are really cool, and his origin story here is pretty decent — considering how many contradictory origin stories he’s had in the comics — so I’ll let it slide.

I could go on for days about the world-building, the production design, and the infectious sense of fun that this movie offers. But ultimately, I feel that all of this is encapsulated within a single question, and it may be the most important question of all: Does this movie portray Aquaman 1) charging into battle 2) on a seahorse 3) in his orange and green costume, and 4) did the filmmakers find a way to make that look badass? Yes, yes, yes, and YES.

I generally try to be more lenient with movies that fail for being too ambitious, and that’s certainly what we’ve got with Aquaman. I’m so deeply impressed with the world-building here that I wish the filmmakers had shown us more of it instead of talking about it through endless repetitive dialogue. The screenplay is infuriatingly slipshod, the cast is uneven, and the movie is bloated as hell, but James Wan and Jason Momoa are both putting in so much effort and clearly having so much fun that they’re enough to help salvage the film.

With all of that said, Black Panther already did pretty much everything this movie did, and did it way better; Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse and Bumblebee are both superior movies and both still in theaters; and the state of DC/WB in film is so uncertain right now, it’s hard to say when or if we’ll ever get a sequel to this film, never mind a connection to any other movies. Taking all of that into consideration with the movie’s pros and cons, I’m extremely hesitant to give this anything more than a rental recommendation.