Movie Review – ‘Aquaman’
It’s no secret that Warner Bros. has had some trouble with the DCEU (if that’s what we’re even calling it anymore). Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad were all met with mixed-to-negative responses; Justice League underperformed at the box office; movies like Batman and Flashpoint consistently get delayed; entire slates of movies get announced and then canceled; high profile actors like Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill may be out of the franchise. With all that has been going on, Wonder Woman seemed to be the only saving grace of the entire cinematic universe. Thankfully, Aquaman feels like a step in the right direction.
Aquaman shines because it doesn’t worry about being part of one larger and overlapping universe. Like Wonder Woman, Aquaman is a simple singular narrative that focuses solely on the journey of it’s titular hero. And that simple story is compelling and engaging enough to keep audiences invested. Arthur Curry is caught between a surface world that doesn’t seem to care much for nature and sea-life, and his underwater ancestors who are ready to rage war. Watching Arthur grow from being a surfer-bro into a responsible man willing to save two different worlds is emotionally gratifying.
I’ve been a fan of James Wan ever since his directorial debut with Saw. I just love how he can utilize the physical space of his sets to create a certain mood. In Saw, the singular bathroom setting made for a claustrophobic atmosphere. In Furious 7, wide open locations allowed Wan to have more freedom with the camera and experiment more during high-octane action sequences. So you better believe that Wan definitely utilizes the settings in Aquaman to heighten the dramatic tension of a scene. Two action scenes that particularly stood out to me include a fight during the first few minutes of the film, and a chase sequence in Italy.
But what’s even more impressive than how Wan handled the action scenes, is how he handled the film’s tone. In pop culture, Aquaman has always been viewed as something of a joke. I mean, his superpower is basically the ability to talk to fish – it just sounds inherently silly. And while watching grown men talking underwater while riding on the backs of sharks and sea horses is admittedly silly as all hell, you can take the scenes seriously because of how invested you become in this fantasy (underwater) world. Aquaman is a movie that knows how to take itself seriously, while still having lots of fun. The stakes feel real and personal, but the tone is still joyous and optimistic. We can finally say goodbye to the dreary and cynical tone set by the earlier DC films.
Thankfully, we can also say goodbye to the dark and drab aesthetic as well. The colors in Aquaman are wonderfully warm and lively. Don Burgess did an excellent job on the cinematography, and his use of colors was integral in making the city of Atlantis come to life. I haven’t been this impressed with underwater sequences since I’ve seen the hidden Gungan city in The Phantom Menace.
However, like The Phantom Menace, Aquaman uses an overabundance of CGI. Some of it looks extraordinarily well done, but certain scenes do look like they could have been polished up a bit. Interestingly enough, as rare as it is for me to say this, I will say that I did prefer the VFX over the film’s practical effects. I was just very disappointed with Aquaman’s costume designs. I don’t care what anyone says, but Black Manta and the Altantean police force look like silly Power Ranger villains.
I did like Black Manta, but I don’t think he was quite relevant in this narrative. I enjoyed how his presence taught Arthur Curry that every action bares a consequence, but he takes a backseat to the more prominent villain, which is Curry’s half-brother Orm. I just wish the film had given him time to fully develop as a character instead of giving him a weird training montage where he constructs his villainous costume. Manta’s connection with Curry is personal, so I wish his character and his storyline was saved for a future story. Hopefully we can see more of him in a potential sequel.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen did an okay job portraying the secondary villain, but he is completely overshadowed by Patrick Wilson. Wilson clearly gets along well with director James Wan, and he portrays Orm with a great sense of conviction. Orm may be enraged with the state of the world, but he has a far more personal vendetta against his half-brother. I found Orm’s motivations for wanting to wage a war against humanity a little weak, but I absolutely loved his connection to Curry. Wilson has great chemistry with Jason Momoa, and I believe their relationship as brothers. The two brothers don’t want to necessarily harm each other, but they have to due to certain circumstances. I just love their connection together, and I honestly hope we get to see their relationship expand in the future.
The rest of the cast also does a fine job. Temuera Morrison, Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lundgren, and Amber Heard all give solid performances, but none of them particularly stand out. I enjoyed the presence of each and every one of these actors, but none of them ever do anything memorable – except for Amber Heard’s character Mera, who manages to somehow stab people with water at one point. Nicole Kidman at least has a warm presence as Arthur Curry’s mother, Queen Atlanna. I thoroughly enjoyed the connection Atlanna shared with her sons, but I do have some questions about her survival techniques. Also, why has Curry’s view on his mother changed so radically since his time in Justice League? Oh right, this is the DCEU – it doesn’t matter.
In fact, I have more questions about this world. Like how much does the public know about Atlantis? Or better put, why doesn’t the public know more about Atlantis? Everyone knows about aliens, and meta-humans, and enchantresses, and googly-eyed monsters, and crocodile men, and cyborgs, and even gods, but Atlanteans are too farfetched to believe in? And if humanity doesn’t even know about the Atlanteans’ existence, then why is Orm so pissed off at them? He couldn’t just expose himself and have a civil conversation about how he doesn’t like that humans pollute the waters and have an utter disregard for sea-life? He had to go straight for the “wage war on them” approach? Wouldn’t anyone immediately see through that plan as a pathetic attempt to achieve the “Ocean Master” status? And wouldn’t Curry’s plan to warn humanity about an oncoming invasion be more responsible than following an old fairytale to a trident MacGuffin? Or am I being too picky here?
I will say that I enjoyed how writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall attempted to include a message about pollution and how humanity should be taking better care of the planet. It wasn’t exactly a subtle message, but at least it wasn’t too in-your-face either. I appreciate that a movie within a cinematic universe like the DCEU at least tried to have some social commentary. Their script may be a bit simple, but it is a massive improvement over earlier DC screenplays – which is impressive coming from a pair of writers who previously worked on Wrath of the Titans and Gangster Squad.
Much of Aquaman may feels like a cross between The Lion King and Black Panther, but its easy to give the film a pass. Maybe that’s because of the new underwater setting, maybe it’s because of Jason Momoa’s charm, or maybe the characters are just engaging enough to carry a narrative like this on their own. Said narrative may be a bit predictable, but it is still fun to watch.
There is an inherent charm to Aquaman’s simplicity. It’s refreshing to take a step back and focus on the growth and journey of one character – especially after a messy film like Justice League. This is a message that other studios should learn from (including Warner Bros. themselves); focus on making one good movie at a time. Don’t worry about immediately making an interconnected universe – focus on character driven narratives first so that audiences can grow attached to your characters, and then expand upon your universe later on.
That may sound a bit derivative since Marvel created that formula first, but their formula works. More importantly, they’re still the only studio with a successful shared universe (in terms of both box office and critical acclaim). Audiences latch on to their characters, and so event films like Infinity War or Endgame feel all the more satisfying to watch. Imagine how well Justice League could have been received if it had taken more time to be released, and came out after a movie like this one. I may not care much for the DCEU as a whole, but I very much enjoyed Aquaman.