Directed by: James Wan
Review by: Zach Owens
You may have already given up on the DC Universe films by now, and no one could blame you. But “Aquaman” is entertaining enough to give a shot if you’re still willing.
It tells the story of how Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) became Aquaman by going back and witnessing the brief romance between his parents. One of whom is, of course, the Princess of Atlantis, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), and the other a human lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). This makes Arthur a unique person capable of bridging the realms of land and sea dwellers, if only he can get over the fact that he feels like a bit of an outsider to both.
The setup here is solid and director James Wan takes his time with it, but sadly that leaves little time for endearing the eventually grown up Arthur Curry to us. “Wonder Woman” did a great job of establishing the character and then spending time with her so we felt like we knew her and understood her motivations and the internal conflicts she dealt with. Instead, Aquaman spends more time establishing a secondary villain in Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that we’ll have to wait for future films to pay off.
That’s just the beginning of the problems. The film also has far too much exposition to get through. It has to setup the central hero while building a romance between his parents, it has to explain the setting of Atlantis and the conflicts going on there, it has to establish both a primary and a secondary villain, and it has to send the hero on the hero’s journey. All of this makes for a bloated film with an already bloated runtime.
Yet the film does enough right, and is consistently entertaining enough, that it ends up being an enjoyable ride anyway. There may be too many plot elements, but James Wan juggles them as well as anyone could. In fact, this film could have easily become a convoluted mess in the hands of a lesser director. That’s all to say that this film is too much, but at least what’s there is handled with care. There are themes of pollution, family, diversity and acceptance that make the film a bit smarter than most of the other films in this cinematic universe.
The DC universe films have been mostly bad. “Man of Steel” was a much too serious take on Superman that ended in over-the-top destruction. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was a painfully dour and disjointed movie that didn’t work on any level. “Suicide Squad” was a bland mess that didn’t make any sense. And “Justice League” was a boring movie full of bad CGI and underdeveloped characters. The only good DC Universe movie, in this new series, was “Wonder Woman.” That movie properly established it’s heroine and featured a handful of likable side characters in a film with solid writing and performances. Its only shortcoming was how it devolved into a CGI explosion-fest with a mostly undeveloped villain.
“Aquaman” is easily the second best film in the series. On the one hand that isn’t saying much considering how bad the rest of the films are, but putting it in the same conversation as “Wonder Woman” is still a compliment. Like “Wonder Woman,” it also devolves into a CGI explosion-fest, but unlike “Wonder Woman,” the battle at the end of “Aquaman” is particularly hard to follow. Part of the problem is the fact that the battle involves a race of creatures we’ve not been introduced to until moments before the battle. Then there’s the overwhelming number of creatures, laser blasts and explosions happening at any one time. Then there’s the fact that even characters we do know have their faces covered by helmets. To say that the climactic battle sequence is indiscernible is an understatement, but at least the characters and the stakes have been established well enough that we care about the outcome. That’s not something we can say about most of the rest of the DC films. And the CGI effects work. It helps that the main villain is played by a human actor rather than CGI and that the film does a good job establishing him.
It’s something of a minor miracle that this film works at all considering the state of the DC cinematic universe and the fact that it has the unenviable job of endearing a character as conceptually silly as Aquaman. Yet it ends up being an entertaining action flick nonetheless.
I suspect your willingness to accept the film, or even bother seeing it, will depend almost entirely on your willingness to accept the filmmakers indulging themselves with silly uses of underwater creatures. At one point an octopus plays the drums like we’re in some Star Wars cantina scene. Depending on your tone of voice and inflection when you say that outloud that can either sound like a good thing or a dumb thing. And plenty of people will say it like it’s a positive thing. It’s a weird world already, may as well have some fun with it. But if it sounds ridiculous when you say it, “Aquaman” probably won’t be worth the effort.