Directed By: James Wan
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman
It's been a year since the events of Justice League put Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in the public eye when he helped save the world, but the man known as Aquaman doesn't quite see himself a hero. He spends his days saving people and fighting pirates, sure, but he's also more interested in getting back in time for his local bar's happy hour, content with a life that has allowed him to shirk his destiny as the king of Atlantis, an underwater kingdom that views him as a bastard - he is, after all, the son of Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a land-dwelling lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) - and is ruled instead by a half-brother he's never met, King Orm (Patrick Wilson).
When Orm decides it's time to punish the surface world for treating Earth's oceans like dumping grounds, Arthur is found by Mera (Amber Heard), a princess engaged to Orm, and called to action in order to help stop Orm. After seeing what his half-brother is capable of when Atlantis fires a global warning shot that nearly claims the life of his father, Arthur finally agrees to join Mera, setting off on a journey to stop Orm, save the world, and - quite possibly - embrace who he has always meant to be.
That a movie centered around Aquaman, a character who has spent decades as somewhat of a pop culture joke for many who know little about the character other than he can talk to fish, even works is no small miracle. As the sixth film in the troubled DC Extended Universe, Aquaman also has the unfortunate burden of being saddled with the baggage of its predecessors. For me personally, though I enjoyed 2013's Man of Steel and really loved 2017's Wonder Woman, I haven't quite dug any of the other entries, finding 2016's Batman v Superman an utter slog, Suicide Squad an outright waste of opportunity, and Justice League a mixed bag of good and bad traits that all add up to disappointment nonetheless.
Wisely, director James Wan and his creative team all make the decision to distance Aquaman from the franchise it's a part of. Aside from a quick reference to the events of Justice League, Aquaman doesn't actively try to link itself to the franchise by throwing in connections left and right to films past (or future) or cameos from any of the other major players, focusing purely on Arthur and his story alone, and for the most part, it works simply due to trying to stand on its own two feet. Unlike, say, Batman v Superman, which felt like an attempt to cram together too many ideas, or Suicide Squad, which felt like a Frankenstein's monster of different visions of a single movie haphazardly patched together, Aquaman benefits from staying on course with Arthur's journey from reluctant do-gooder to true hero and king.
Visually, Aquaman is pretty solid, something that will undoubtedly dazzle many with a colorful palette that continues to push the DCEU away from its dark and dreary beginnings. There's a lot of effects work thrown up on screen, and all of it looks quite impressive. A moment late in the film that sees Arthur and Mera descending into the dark depths of the ocean with nothing but a flare, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of monsters swirling around them only held at bay by the light, has stuck with me, as have some of the early action sequences, in particular a battle between Atlanna and a number of soldiers in the Curry household that showcases James Wan's passion for capturing dynamic events with a wide angle.
Unfortunately, by the time the third act of the film rolls around, that slick coating wears off to reveal the film's narrative shortcomings. Though I'm glad, as I mentioned, that the film doesn't try to shoulder too much beyond Arthur's quest to defeat Orm, the film itself feels the pressure of that story - and the predictability it ends up adhering to - being extended twenty minutes too far; as Orm's troops and the forces of another undersea kingdom do battle with one another near the end, I found myself ready for the film to wrap up, only for it to keep on going, which is disappointing, particularly when things I did want to see more of - like the arrival of the villainous Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was one of the reasons I was looking forward to the film - are treated like second thoughts in the overall narrative.
It doesn't help that much of what we are given here are things we've seen done in similar comic book movies recently (and better). The on screen revelation of the technologically advanced kingdom of Atlantis feels a bit like experiencing Wakanda for the first time in Black Panther. The sibling rivalry between Orm and Arthur carries little weight, both due to the fact that Orm is hardly given any sort of development throughout the film and that the Marvel Cinematic Universe did better with the sibling dynamic of Thor and Loki when they were introduced in 2011 (and since). Even the budding romance between Arthur and Mera tends to fall flat; compared to Wonder Woman, Momoa and Heard simply don't have the type of chemistry that that film's two leads, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, had that helped make up for where that film's narrative stumbled.
It may seem a bit unfair to compare Aquaman to those other comic book movies, but ultimately those comparisons highlight the fact that the film doesn't really bring anything new to the table, relying on special effects as a distraction from the fact we've been here and done this before in some form or another. Momoa proves to be a good lead, and the film has a goofy sense of self-awareness about its own existence - even if it goes a bit too far sometimes, like the sudden, bizarre usage of Pitbull's "Ocean to Ocean" song that had my audience groaning late in the film - but I didn't come out of the film with a sense that I'd seen something that contributes something fresh to the genre like, for instance, its own predecessor Wonder Woman or even has a real personality all its own that helps it stand out from the crowd, something even smaller scale MCU movies like the Ant-Man films can claim.
It's a competent film, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's far better - in my opinion - than the rest of the films in the DCEU save Wonder Woman and, to an extent, Man of Steel. Considering the track record of the franchise, Aquaman could've been far worse, but it also could've been so much more. As it stands, I enjoyed watching it - and hope that a sequel can learn from it - even if I don't really have a desire to revisit it again anytime soon and can't quite muster up too much enthusiasm to dive any deeper in discussing the film. Like a riptide, Aquaman could've sucked me in and never let go, but its routine narrative, thin characterization, and increasing over-reliance on spectacle over substance as the film rolls along ensured that the experience was more akin to standing in shallow, if comfortable, water.
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