Regardless of what director James Wan would have you believe, the primary antagonist in “Aquaman” is not King Orm or Black Manta. No, the biggest villain in this movie is its own narrative inconsistency. It is not often that a film has me so conflicted. But I get ahead of myself.
In the spirit of the holidays, I suppose it would be becoming to approach this with a feeling of gratitude. The fact that we even got an Aquaman movie after the horrific dumpster fire that was “Justice League” is nothing short of a Christmas miracle. Even so, the first few opening minutes of this movie had me face-palming pretty hard. There is no way around this, entertaining as Aquaman is, it frequently goes out of its way to make some laughable mistakes. A good example is literally within the first scene where an unconscious Atlantean woman (Played by Nicole Kidman) is found stranded by a convincingly de-aged Temuera Morrison. Even though she is unconscious, she can still maintain a vice-like grip on her trident whilst being carried by her rescuer. Missteps of this kind abound in the movie and it ruins a lot of the goodwill it otherwise garners. Still, credit where credit is due: whether it be commercial desperation that green-lit this film or the idea of salvaging lost pride, taking the decision to actually make an Aquaman movie was a brave one. Even within the comic book community the character of King Arthur Curry is a bit of a joke. Well, with the movie crossing half a billion at the box office, I’m sure more than a few voices up at Warner Brothers are saying “Who’s laughing now?”
One of my biggest gripes with Justice League was its jarring portrayal of Arthur Curry (Aquaman). Casting Jason Momoa as the titular fish talker might have been a win but the way he was scripted was atrocious. Arthur is a King. The man rules the most technologically advanced civilization the earth has ever seen and his lineage goes back centuries. When he is not busy overseeing matters of state and battling alien beasties, he is building alliances and playing diplomat. Why then, is he behaving like a stereotypical surfer bro in Justice League? “Aquaman” goes a long way in actually explaining that. Whether it succeeds in this is up to the viewer but in my opinion, it does, albeit just enough to make it stick.
There is a lot to like here. Director James Wan’s vision is by far the most visually striking thing I’ve seen in comic book movies in a long time. Considering just how many of these we have seen over the last decade, that is saying something. Thematically too, Arthur’s progression as a character does make sense. As a child of two worlds, he finds himself a misfit in either one. His response to this is rejecting both, wanting nothing to do with the oceans and hiding in relative obscurity on land. At the same time, he can’t help but aid people in need whilst being an adrenaline junkie that jumps into trouble headfirst. In a way, Momoa’s Aquaman is a more nuanced character than in the comics.
The movie goes a long way in making the world of Atlantis seem real. Sure, some of the CGI is off, especially when showing a young Arthur talking underwater or when some of the de-aging effects become a little too obvious. Still, overall the special effects work. Chances are, you will never look at a sea horse the same way again after watching this film. The action sequences deserve special mention here. They fit the comic book aesthetic to a t.
The visuals are further complemented by a fairly decent, if confused, soundtrack. Some of the tracks have an electronic/aquatic/chill-house vibe that I really dug. I think I’ll call it “Fishstep”. The problem? As good as the music is, it is constantly shifting from an epic orchestral piece, to hard rock riffs, to fishstep, to licensed tracks and even funny time music straight out of a Disney cartoon. Like I said, inconsistency is Aquaman’s greatest foe.
The story isn’t ground breaking but does a passable job of setting up both the world and its characters. The cast list is impressive, with actors such as Willem Dafoe, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman and Patrick Wilson doing their best given the constraints of a mediocre script. Heck, even Dolph Lundgren is having fun. The chemistry between Momoa and Heard is convincing, if a little too predictable in places. Still, there is no denying the fact that Momoa is carrying the movie on those massive Dothraki shoulders. Aquaman finally vindicates the decision to cast him as Arthur Curry.
At this point I cant help but compare Arthur’s character to his competition in MCU. This is basically DC’s Thor (face it Marvel fans, Namor is not coming to the big screen anytime soon). But unlike Marvel’s hammer-swinging demigod, it is highly unlikely that DC’s resident trident-wielder is going to get eight or so years to grow into someone really compelling. A pity, because Momoa could easily justify the investment.
The action sequences are amazing. To my eye, this is what superheroes fighting underwater would look like, i.e., gloriously over-the-top with zero regards to Newtonian physics. There isn’t even a hint of realism here and that is perfectly fine. I’d go far enough to say that even trying to explain how people can move the way they do in this film would ruin things. Everything from the set designs, the costumes and action choreography are strong enough to suspend my sense of disbelief. From a strictly visual standpoint this is by far the DCEU’s most interesting film. If there is one thing I would complain about and this is me just nitpicking here, it is that a lot of the armor in this film comes across as looking too “plasticky”. I can see how a civilization as advanced as Atlantis could create polymers or ceramics way stronger than mere metal but it would have been cool to see something more inspired by shells or fins (like what Aquaman himself dons towards the end).
The plot, though a little more complicated than it had to be, does move along nicely. Aquaman’s pacing is one of its strengths and I rarely felt like I was left waiting for things to happen. So dense is the plot that one of the key antagonists, Black Manta, barely gets anytime to develop. Right up to the midway mark there is enough happening on screen to keep one’s mouth full of popcorn. But then something happens.
Around the halfway mark a drum-playing octopus shows up, signaling a drastic change in tone. An impressive fight sequence follows, making the viewer wonder if that whole octo-drummer thing was a hallucination. Then, the speakers start blaring a cringe-worthy remix of Toto’s “Africa”, our protagonists find their way to the Sahara and for a good 25 minutes I felt like I was taken away from the creative wonderland of Atlantis to some weird Indiana Jones/Romancing the Stone territory. And not in a good way. The quality of writing takes a dive, the dialogs stink like old fish, the acting becomes rotten and plot begins to sink like a badly-holed submarine. It is horrible, horrible to watch. The tropes are so tropey in this section of the film that they seemed to have come forth from the mind of a 12 year old that just read her first copy of “Adventure time for dummies”. This is by far the weakest part of the film and came close to ruining the whole experience for me. It is almost like someone held a gun to the director’s head and said “Make this more like Guardians of the Galaxy”. It goes against the mood of narrative and feels utterly out of place. Literally. It is telling that they decided to take the viewers from under the ocean to the driest spot on earth. Creatively, that exactly what it feels like. Dry as a desert.
Thankfully, this travesty of tropes does not last too long and the movie finds its rhythm once again, the plot progresses quickly and Aquaman builds up to a visually stunning climax, an action sequence so action packed, it infringes upon “Infinity War” territory. It is that good. But damn if things didn’t look like they were unraveling really fast there for a bit.
It may seem like I’m being too hard on Aquaman. The truth is, other than the script, there are no “average” parts to the film. It either excels or fails, nothing in between. Like a nice juicy steak that for some inexplicable reason is lathered in rancid sauce. In order to enjoy the meaty goodness, it takes some effort to scrape away what clearly does not belong. To clarify, I did enjoy it. Warts and all. 14 year old me would have walked out of the hall convinced this was the best movie ever. But the cynical middle aged me cannot help but view it differently. Aquaman is an entertaining undersea romp. It is also weighed down by some poor editing and drowning in inconsistency. Still, it often breaks the surface majestically when it comes up for air as Momoa gets busy punching things. Bottomline: I came out of the hall smiling. And I’ll probably watch it again.
There is no denying the pervasive sense of irony that runs through the whole of this project. And to anyone that disagrees, I leave them with this: the cute boy toy from Baywatch is now King of the Seven Seas. Long may he reign.
FINAL SCORE: 6.8/10 (This should have been a 9 folks)