Attitude is everything. Aquaman has a fairly rotten script, and it is so green screen/stagebound that the few scenes shot on location are actually shocking. It is completely unoriginal, comprised mostly of swipes from other movies, from STAR WARS to CONAN, from the BOURNE films to DUNE, and a million others in between. This Aquaman bears almost no resemblance to the character as he has been depicted in comics and cartoons over the decades.
And yet there’s this attitude about the movie that makes it absolutely irresistible. There’s an enthusiasm that director James Wan brings that is palpable, that has the same energy as a golden retriever puppy that just wants to play with you and be loved by you. That same energy is shared by Jason Momoa, who looks more like Lobo than Arthur Curry, but who has a heart as soft as a jellyfish.
That enthusiasm plays itself out as a true courage of ridiculous convictions; Aquaman is the most sweeping and epic of the DC movies to date, the first film in this misbegotten universe that feels truly like it’s embracing its comic book roots (well, besides the work of Frank Miller, anyway). It’s absolutely weird, and it is absolutely not grounded in anything approaching reality; while many of the trailers made the film look depressingly dry, the actual film takes place mostly underwater in increasingly outlandish kingdoms. It’s the kind of movie where a bleach blonde Patrick Wilson (playing Jason Momoa’s younger brother) is about to kill a defiant shellfish man… and it’s played as deeply emotional and rousing. You gotta love that.
Which isn’t to say the film avoids all winks – it has more than one puzzled animal reaction shot – but mostly Aquaman plays it straight, which it simply must. When the shit gets as arch as it gets in this movie, you simply cannot have the characters puncturing the silliness. The silliness must remain paramount, and must be treated with the utmost respect and seriousness. Too many films don’t get this, or they don’t get that they’re actually silly and so they become self-serious. James Wan, fresh off the Fast and Furious franchise, absolutely gets the correct tone here – he knows this is Lord of the Rings as fashioned by a metalhead teenager who doodles undersea monsters in his notebook during math class, and yet he treats it as if it were the actual Lord of the Rings.
That’s what the previous DC films – even Wonder Woman – have not quite gotten. This is the key to the DC characters, who are all godlike and way above ordinary humans, and yet are absolutely silly and goofy. Marvel has the easier time with adaptations because the characters are written in the comics as people with feet of clay, and their foolishness inherently undercuts the sturm und drang of comic book storytelling. But DC characters don’t have that built-in steam valve, and so when they were previously brought to the screen they ended up being portentous rather than fun. Or, in the case of the pre-Nolan Batfilms, eventually they ended up way too goofy. The urge is to take them too seriously or to think they’re too ridiculous, and I think that only Richard Donner, Tim Burton and now James Wan have 100 percent understood how to bring these particular characters to life (on the big screen. They do a pretty good job of threading this needle on the TV shows).
I wonder what Wan’s vision of Aquaman would have been if he had not inherited Momoa. Whatever the case, the vision he cooks up is a strong one, if it does feel like it’s a vision for a movie that should have come out before Justice League. Wan leans hard on the idea of Arthur Curry as biracial (half breed, to the racially insensitive Atlanteans), and a man stuck between the land and the sea. I don’t think the movie is really successful with this – what makes Arthur’s human side valuable? The movie never even gets close to addressing this in the way numerous stories have explained why Clark Kent being raised in Kansas was important – but it’s a nice through line and gives us that rare superhero who doesn’t have daddy/father figure issues. Arthur actually has a great relationship with his dad, a beer-soaked lighthouse keeper played by Temuera Morrison; it’s his mom that up and left him as a child.
But that biracial aspect is nice in that it gives us an Aquaman who doesn’t feel at home at sea or on land, and so we get an arc of a guy who doesn’t want to be part of either world becoming the defender of one and the king of the other. Again, this feels like a story that would have worked better BEFORE Justice League (at one point Arthur says he doesn’t work well with others and we suspect that he, like most of the population, simply skipped Justice League), but Aquaman is so loosely set within the DCEU that it barely matters.
(I’m not the guy to write the full biracial review of Aquaman, by the way. I’m disappointed that the movie makes it simply shorthand for ‘fish out of water,’ and I would have liked to have more exploration of why the surface part of Arthur Curry matters, but I also understand the profound importance of a character like this being in the public space. Again, I just wish that his biracialness had been explored as more than shorthand)
Arthur’s mixed heritage gives us one of the film’s greatest pleasures – almost nobody explains anything to us. There’s some tedious political exposition about what Evil Orm’s plan is, but otherwise we largely jump into various scenarios and situations without the kind of groundlaying that I think kills too many fantasy movies. Because Arthur was raised on some Atlantean legends we get to skip a lot of stuff. It’s the Star Wars approach – just jump into the world and assume the audience will catch up. This gives the film the speedy pace it needs, because this is the kind of movie that can’t allow you a moment to think about what’s happening, otherwise you’re going to realize how much of it is quite dumb.
There are different kinds of dumb in movies. There’s the really offensive kind, where nothing makes sense and where the movie basically disrespects your intelligence. Aquaman isn’t that kind of dumb. Things make, in a general way, sense. I could recount to you the story of the movie and it would – more or less – work logically. Aquaman is the kind of dumb where every decision and plot twist is fairly rote, where you don’t really have to parse too much of what’s happening because every character is behaving in a way that you’ve seen characters in other movies behave. Like many students who do poorly in school, it isn’t that Aquaman is stupid, it’s that Aquaman is lazy.
At least when it comes to the plot and the characters. When it comes to spectacle, Aquaman is putting in overtime. Even in a world of CGI overkill (and in a film of CGI overkill), Aquaman manages to create some truly exhilarating moments and images. The movie never quite overcomes the modern blockbuster problem – a massive final battle that is mostly an animated movie, with zero identifiable stakes and even less reality or gravity – but it leans into that problem in a fun way. After all, that massive and confusing battle is full of guys riding sharks and dragon-like seahorses fighting shellfish men while a huge kaiju blows shit up. Would it be nice if it were more coherent or if there was a sense of strategy or meaning to the chaos? Sure, but I’ve become so inured to incomprehensible CGI battles that this one actually fares better than most.
Speaking of CGI: it’s worth noting that Aquaman is perhaps the phoniest looking movie I have ever seen. Even the scenes of domestic bliss in the beginning of the film are drenched in pixels, as they feature de-aged Temuera Morrison and de-aged Nicole Kidman. This movie truly straddles the line between animated film and live action film in a way that no movie has since Tron Legacy. Sequences shot on location are full of green screen shots (reshoots, perhaps?), lending the whole film an air of not-quite-reality. It works, creating a heightened world that reminded me more often than not of the stagey, phony environments of 1980s Star Wars rip-offs (a genre of which this film is entirely a descendant).
I do wish that phoniness were only skin deep. Sadly, the film’s emotional beats feel just as fake as the visuals; while Momoa is a beating heart of joy at the center of the film, nothing that happens around him feels all that real. Morrisson and Kidman just don’t have the chemistry they need, and Amber Heard’s Mera is written largely as a stock “annoyed at the lunkheaded lead” female sidekick. Willem Dafoe is a lot of fun as Vulko, but I never understood any of his motivation or why he cared about Arthur so much. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who I loved in The Get Down, is functional as Black Manta (it’s worth noting that Aquaman handles the ‘multiple villains’ thing very well, and none of them feel shoe-horned in).
Maybe the person who most gets what he’s doing – besides Momoa, whose entrance alone, looking over his shoulder with his ass in our faces and winking over his rippling back muscles, proves he fully gets it – is Patrick Wilson. He’s gone high camp here, and and more than once I laughed to myself thinking about what his performance must have been like on set, strapped into a rig to make him look like he was floating, alone in front of a green screen. He’s just so HUGE. He’s missing a bitchy quality that would have made his Orm a camp classic, though. Maybe if he had added a little incestuous lust for Arthur it would have elevated the role from arch to all-timer. Still, Wilson goes for it, and he makes for a fun villain.
I think Aquaman is the best DC movie so far. It doesn’t have the solemnity of Man of Steel or the importance of Wonder Woman – and there’s not a single moment in this movie that even comes close to that film’s No Man’s Land sequence – but it’s the first DC film that is fun to watch from beginning to end, and that feels of a whole. We don’t like to talk about this, but Wonder Woman’s third act is garbage, which is really a huge rewatch problem. Aquaman’s third act, while rote, is fun and actually functions as a summation of all that went before.
From start to finish Aquaman is a fairly silly, giddily excited blast of comic book energy. And while this version of Arthur Curry is really nothing like the comic book version, Aquaman is the first DC film to indicate that someone at Warner Bros finally figured out what these movies can be, if you assign filmmakers who want to have a good time to them. The movie is a huge hit overseas, so I assume Aquaman 2 is on deck, and I do hope that with this foundation we can get a more emotionally engaging story next time. But whatever happens, Aquaman has given me hope for the future of the DCEU.