I saw Aquaman when it came out in cinemas (see my Twitter reaction) but didn’t feel the need to say anything at the time because it was fine if goofy fun. I had no idea it would make more than $1 billion at the box office – which is why I’m not a movie executive. The film has now arrived on Netflix, so I thought I should compile my thoughts on this blog if for no other reason than completeness for this blog’s ‘comic book movies’ category.
The DCEU is a strange place because there’s no coherence, nobody calling the shots or trying to tell an overall and connected story of a multi-layered universe. I’m probably spoilt by the MCU, but one of the main charms of massive comic-book universes is the overlap, the interconnectedness, the feeling of all the events occurring in a shared world, so it seems that the DCEU is missing a trick. After the attempt by Zack Snyder to do a dark take on these superheroes didn’t ignite with viewers, it seems that Warner Bros. decided to let people just do whatever they want with the DC Comics properties, which is how we end up with something as bonkers as Aquaman.
The central idea is quite familiar – a young man has to learn to accept the responsibilities forced upon him for the greater good – but it does it with a certain charm and over-the-top fun. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is out stopping crime in the seas, such as piracy, before coming back home to get drunk in his local bar. Unbeknownst to him, his step-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), king of Atlantis, is trying to join the kingdoms to wage war on the land dwellers by becoming Ocean Master (I love comic books, but that is a silly title, and all the actors who have to say it in the film make a brave attempt but fail at conveying it without it sounding ridiculous). Mera (Amber Heard), daughter of another king and betrothed of Orm, decides to get Arthur to come back and stop Orm by making him take the throne, something Arthur doesn’t want because of his disdain for Atlantis after his mum, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), had to leave him and his father (Temuera Morrison, who looks very weird in the de-aged sequence at the beginning) and return to Atlantis. However, Orm launches tsunamis that return the mountains of rubbish dumped in the sea back onto the land, and so the adventure begins …
Director James Wan has created a strange mix of films. We have the rowdy charm of scruffy badass Momoa, practically winking at the audience and waving his hair around with abandon but who knows what kind of film he is in, but this is mixed in with political machinations of royal courts underwater, but with a detour for an Indiana Jones ‘hunting the MacGuffin’ adventure and a final massive underwater battle between huge armies and bigger sea monsters. Coherence is not a strength or selling point. A strength is the great worldbuilding for the underwater world – the historical and visual differences of all the different kingdoms of the sea, the different animals used for underwater travel, the different aesthetics blended in to achieve a feel of a lived-in universe.
The film is goofy but at least it goes all in with the goofiness: the underwater characters just float around and talk underwater without any easing in, but then it just keeps going – an octopus playing drums? Aquaman riding a giant shark? A centre of the world under the sea that is full of mountains and dinosaurs? A leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews? (There are some names in small roles here – Djimon Hounsou voices the king of the Fishermen, John Rhys-Davies voices the Bring king, and Willem Dafoe is vizier Vulko). There is good action – the underwater battle is impressive, and I particularly enjoyed the way the action sequence in Sicily was shot, with Arthur fighting Black Manta and Mera being chased over rooftops and between houses, the camera zooming in and out, zipping along with the protagonists, nipping out the window to follow them. The film is fun, and certainly more entertaining than the Snyder films, even if it does touch on big issues, such as the horrific ways that humans treat the sea as a dumping ground and killing off its inhabitants (although it could probably have done more with that). Personally, I found the politics stuff quite boring, but Orm has a point, even if we disagree with how he is going about it. The film also doesn’t follow through: a lot happens that doesn’t really matter – the sub attacking the Orm’s meeting with King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) isn’t mentioned again, the massive tsunami that Orm unleashes isn’t mentioned again, the fact that Arthur didn’t complete the official challenge against Orm doesn’t seem to matter.
The film suffers from having an unnecessary second villain for the purposes of including Aquaman’s rogues gallery and setting up the sequel: Black Manta didn’t need to be in the film and he’s a massive hypocrite in blaming Aquaman for his father’s death after all the killing he has done. Also, Black Manta is supposedly a pirate who goes around killing and stealing, yet he’s somehow a tech genius who can take apart practically alien tech (Atlantean technology given to him by Orm) and not only understand it but repurpose it to look like the version in the comic books – really?
Paying attention to details isn’t what this film is about, which is another differentiator between DCEU and MCU films. Why can’t Atlanna be queen? Because, apparently, we have to reinforce the status quo of a patriarchal line of divine rule, I guess. Why the Indiana Jones bit in the middle, following clues around the world? And why would the powerful ruler of Atlantis of old leave a hologram message that is a riddle for anyone to follow to find the super powerful trident? When did he have the time to do that before the old kingdom was destroyed, and why would he think it necessary? I’m not sure the romance between Arthur and Mera really works or is necessary (but why did their first kiss have to be in the middle of the final battle while thousands of people and creatures are dying all around them?), but at least Mera is shown to be equally powerful and capable, which is at least a step in the right direction.
I still don’t think this film is anything special, and I can’t work out how it made so much money at the box office, but at least it’s fun and entertaining – this is a story about a man who can talk to fish, but that’s fine because silly is an inherent part of the DNA of DC Comics, as long as you embrace it, something Snyder either ignored or didn’t get. Although I don’t think they needed Arthur to don the orange and green costume from the comic books – just because it’s in the books, doesn’t mean you have to always do it exactly the same in the films (and let’s hastily brush over the fact that he took the clothes off a centuries-old corpse). I’d much rather have Momoa beating up bad guys in the sea and on land while wearing his jeans and leather jacket and swishing his hair – I’d happily watch that sequel.