AQUAMAN Review

Look, I get it, Aquaman was never going to be an easy movie to make-especially given the weight of the pressure on the film to make or break Warner Bros.' DC Extended Universe. The losses certainly outweigh the wins at this point, but there was a hope that after the triumph of Wonder Woman and the hurried process of simply getting through Justice League (a movie already in production when Batman v Superman received its backlash and essentially completed when WW turned things around) that James Wan's Aquaman might be able to finally allow this rival to the Marvel Studios cinematic universe to settle on and find its own distinct tone. Aquaman somewhat accomplishes this as the movie certainly settles on its own tone-one that is arguably appropriate for a movie about a man who can talk to fish-but Aquaman also never seems to find its rhythm. Wan, a master of suspense and horror, translated his skills into the bigger, action-oriented realm fairly well with Furious 7, but while Aquaman features some of the best choreographed and executed fight sequences of the year everything around them feels like an exercise in trying to figure out how best to configure an underwater world that the movie still hasn't figured out by the time it reaches its final, climactic battle. So listen, I understand there is only so much one can do with an Aquaman movie, I really do, but while the ambition is there and the movie offers some genuine fun in fits and starts the product as a whole never gels in the fashion that it feels like a complete, satisfactory work. Wan's Aquaman, as penned by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, feels like if the Power Rangers series had decided to grow up with the generation Mighty Morphin premiered with, but never developed mentally past that of an eight-year-old's mindset. Meaning, the only thing growing with the audience was the budget while still retaining the mentality and most importantly, the sense of humor, of that core demographic of fourth and fifth graders. Aquaman is a Saturday morning live-action cartoon on steroids likely meaning a certain, large demographic of the audience will absolutely love and revel in what Wan has put together and to be frank, upon further re-watches I can see how it might become more endearing, but upon first impression Aquaman leaves much to be desired in terms of substance despite indulging its audience in eye candy and overwhelming them with silliness.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and Mera (Amber Heard) confront Nuidis (Willem Dafoe) about the situation under the sea.
© Warner Bros. Pictures & © DC Comics
At 143-minutes, Aquaman is just shy of two and a half hours, but the best thing that can be said-probably about the film as a whole-is that you never feel the running time. Wan keeps the plot beats moving so quickly you'll hardly remember them the next day while allowing his big, action set-pieces to breathe and take center stage so that what you do remember the next day are the best, most impressive things the movie has to offer. Beginning with voice over from our titular character we are given the backstory of how this half-human, half-Atlantian came to be when his mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), escaped to the surface world in hopes of fleeing an arranged marriage and fell in love with his father, a lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). Things remained quiet and peaceful for a brief moment until henchmen from the king Atlanna was intended to be betrothed to show up demanding she return to fulfill her duties of marrying the king and bearing him a son. In a sacrificial act, Atlanna willingly returns to Atlantis (but not before kicking some serious ass) so that Tom and their son, Arthur, may remain out of harm's way. Though Atlanna returns to the sea, never to look upon the face of her son again we do come to learn through flashback that she has entrusted a loyal servant, Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to train Arthur and teach him the ways of her people. It is through these same flashbacks that we learn it was Atlanna's people who also had her executed after they learn she has given birth to a "surface-dweller" only spurning Arthur into a lifetime of hate towards those he comes to learn he must lead. After fast-forwarding to present day and re-introducing audiences to Jason Momoa's infinitely charming Arthur Curry via another exceptional action set-piece set upon a submarine that simultaneously introduces us to pirates Jesse Kane (Michael Beach) and his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), that instigates a rivalry that plays out partly over this film and likely a few films to follow, we learn that Curry is simply enjoying his existence as this exceptional being if not taking it too seriously. Curry has somewhat deflected the idea of becoming this hero he proved himself worthy of being in his escapades with the Justice League, but given it's now time for his solo feature he can no longer escape his fate when things come to a head under the sea. All of a sudden, Mera (Amber Heard) arrives on land to inform Curry he must help her track down a McGuffin that will make him the one true king of the sea and assist in stopping his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants to wage war on the surface land so as to take his rightful place as ruler.

There is a moment in the first big action sequence Momoa is involved in where smoke is billowing from the floors of the submarine and Wan very intentionally ratchets up Rupert Gregson-Williams' score as our hero walks through the smoke in slow-motion while looking almost directly into camera and it is in this moment that Wan signals to and the audience very clearly understands what kind of ride we're in for. If Aquaman can be commended for anything though (and honestly, it can be commended for a lot more than I might seem ready to give it credit for) it is the fact the movie is never ashamed of the type of movie it is. This is a movie that features Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe riding a shark that is itself adorned in battle armor-there is no running from the silliness of it all and Wan thankfully has no intention of trying to ground the material or make the overall tone any more serious than it needs to be. I mean, when Wilson's Orm seriously stops the movie in its tracks and says the line, "Call me...Ocean Master." I half expected him to take off his mask and look directly into the camera before The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" came blasting through the speakers. And while this may sound as if Wan and his team gave themselves completely over to this world and simply embraced the kind-of corniness of it all there is a balance laid out with the tone that is contrasted largely by how genuinely beautiful the film can be. "Can be" is the key phrase here though, as some truly breathtaking CGI is interrupted periodically by stiff Matrix Reloaded-level CGI in that certain moments look as if they are little more than preliminary animatics that were inserted before they were finished, especially in wide shots of people swimming through the ocean. And then there are times, such as when we first enter the kingdom of Atlantis or when Kidman's Atlanna introduces us to the fighting style Wan will be utilizing in the film as she battles some slickly clad royal guards that the CGI feels nearly flawless-tangible even. To this extent, I absolutely adored how far the costume and set designers went with some of this stuff-the guard's armor and weapons looking especially like the coolest toys you've ever seen; and there is such a "cool" factor to them that the choice to go this direction never feels cheap or schlocky. The visual prowess Wan has encompassed really is the reason to see the film and see it on the biggest screen possible for, while the writing is more than a little clunky at times-especially some of the dialogue-and the acting can be more than a little stiff and/or awkward due to the restraints of having to feel as if the characters are underwater at all times, there is so much grandeur in so much of the scope and such striking technique in the way Wan and co. execute their action set pieces that it would be a shame were they not experienced in the most immersive of circumstances.

King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is keen on conquering as much as he can in Aquaman.
© Warner Bros. Pictures & © DC Comics
Speaking of story, this is yet another factor of the film that very much has both big pros and big cons to it. For instance, the biggest pro for the screenplay is that it doesn't hold itself prisoner to the typical origin story structure. Though Steppenwolf is referenced once, there is no other mention of things that exist outside the world this movie establishes and so, while we understand that Arthur Curry recognizes his origins and is fully-aware of what he is and where he comes from he has not yet fully embraced the title of "Aquaman". From this starting point, Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall set-up not only that Curry is having a good time protecting his little patch of a secluded fishing village where he and his father still live, but also the politics of what is happening deep beneath the ocean and that Curry himself is unknowingly about to become entangled in them. Orm-in a bit of convenient timing- is attempting to rally the five kingdoms that exist beneath the sea to finally attack the surface in order to establish their superiority (which would probably be pretty easy considering the power Curry alone yields not to mention the technological advancements on display). Of course, Orm isn't really looking to unite the five kingdoms (which I wish they'd have done a better job of differentiating between) in order to rule the surface-dwellers in harmony, but so that he might rule both land and sea. As these things go, Mera is the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) who is one of the rulers of the five kingdoms and is set to be married to Orm, but obviously knows the guy is up to no good thrusting her into a place of great conflict where she will lose everything she's ever known by recruiting Curry for the mission she knows they must go on, but does it anyway in hopes of bringing a balance back to the world. Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall never allow the story to play out in a predictable fashion as far as where the movie might go next, but they do so much in order to try and avoid such tropes that the movie and therefore the audience lose focus on what's really important.

Zipping between the underwater politics, the globe-trotting expeditions, and the family dynamics at play Aquaman is trying to accomplish a lot while not forgetting to be a fun, light-hearted comic book movie and in doing so somewhat overcompensates in the latter realm as the pace is so break-neck, the action scenes so aplenty, and the goofiness so boundless that it leaves little time for actual character development or to even flesh out any scenes or circumstances long enough for the viewer to truly become invested in any of the many things that are happening. Taking a note from his horror background, Wan interrupts almost every moment of stillness in this movie with a surprise explosion as if he were pulling off a jump scare and while this works well-enough the first time it quickly becomes a recognizable pattern that then becomes a crutch the movie can't shake. As for the characters and their lack of any real depth (pun totally intended) Momoa is obviously more than a likable guy and is charming and funny as hell in the role, but he's not so much a character as he is a quip-master. That said, the guy wears the iconic orange and green suit well and I can't wait to see where they go with what they've set-up in the future as this very much feels like a movie where they're finding their (sea) legs and figuring out how best to accomplish certain things that will only, ultimately allow the sequel to be a great improvement upon this first outing. The only characters with real arcs in the film are the two villains-Orm and Abdul-Mateen II's Black Manta-which is all well and good and will again bode well for the sequel, but it's hard not to think had Wan and his screenwriters simply streamlined the story a bit and focused more on the characters and less on integrating multiple plot strands that the end result wouldn't feel as surface-level as it does.