Directed by James Wan
Running time: 2 hours and 23 minutes loooonnnngggggggg
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some superhero horseshit, language, and sea monsters
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Aquaman? That’s where we’re at, huh? Between this and the Deadpool Christmas stunt© and the fake, not-actually-happening Joker movie, it’s increasingly clear that we’ve kind of done all we can do with all this superhero shit. James Wan thinks so, too. How else to explain the fact that his biggest and most direct inspiration for his Aquaman movie seems to be the Star Wars prequels?
I do want to get this out of the way right up front, though - that first fight scene, set aboard a submarine and featuring the “Permission to come aboard” line featured heavily in the trailers, is fucking awesome. Jason Momoa, as fishy-boi Arthur Curry, runs around beating the fucking dogshit out of all the bad guys in a hugely satisfying opening. The choreography, stunt work, cinematography, and Momoa himself all work together to create a character and scene that sets the tone for what should’ve been a big, loud, dopey superhero action spectacle.
There’s a way to do big, loud, dopey superhero action and make it work. But beyond the stellar opening, Aquaman drops the ball every single time. Wan crams in more backstory, non-stop eyeball-gouging battle scenes, wanna-be Shakespearean drama and magical water pistols than we ever cared to know about. Save some for Aquaman 2, buddy. More than that, though, none of it really lands. Not five minutes goes by before the story is interrupted by another gang of bad guys literally smashing into the scene and starting a big-ass fight that then fizzles out a minute later. After the fourth time this happened, I started doing a mental countdown any time two or more characters started talking to each other. “When is this scene gonna be abruptly smashed to pieces?” Sure enough, it happened every time.
Speaking of that, the film also drives home just how exhausting it is for all of these characters to be essentially invulnerable. I must’ve missed it in the last film, but apparently Aquaman is bulletproof? I wasn’t aware of this. So for him to fight twenty guys every five to ten minutes isn’t really all that much fun. So far only Wonder Woman has managed to carry her own film while (mostly anyway) giving us action scenes that worked for her character and drove the story forward. Every other DC film, this one included, just throws a bunch of weird explosive shit at the screen and calls it exciting.
By the time we get to the all-out George Lucas laser and spaceship orgy happening on screen (underwater and not in space, but it amounts to the same thing) I just didn’t care anymore. This is all in the middle of all the King Arthur bullshit happening in the background, evil sea demons, a Kraken, and Patrick Wilson sporting the most unlikely underwater hairdo that’s maybe ever been depicted in a movie.
As is also true for most of the DC films to date, the film’s villain is just about useless. And I’m about to spoil this fucker for you, so drop out now if you don’t want to know just how insane this script really gets. Ready? Ok, let’s do this.
SPOOOOOYYYYYYLLLLUUUUURRRRRRRRSSSSSSSSS (look away if you don’t want to know more):
The character of Black Manta, as set up from the opening submarine massacre, would actually have worked as a villain despite being a direct copy of the Batman / Superman rivalry. Both blame someone for the death of a parent (in this case, Manta blames Aquaman, who was, let’s be honest, a fucking dick about letting Manta’s dad drown in that submarine). Their mutual and colliding missions are hinted at early on, while Manta does the dirty work of the scheming Atlantean royal family to take out Arthur on the surface while using some pretty shitty-looking water-based tech. So, Manta wants to kill Aquaman, which is the story we’re sold early on, but then as soon as the script realizes that Arthur’s brother Orm is a better villain, the movie just brings back Manta for a second just to be dispatched. He gets no real resolution in the story at all, doesn’t factor into the third act in any real way, and will probably not be back for a sequel. His entire motivation is “I want to kill Aquaman.” We know this because he says it to every single other character he speaks to and says just about nothing else. At all. The script even throws in little bits of business for him to play with and then leaves him stranded with being the bad guy you thought was the bad guy until the real, other bad guy comes along.
This is a problem for most of the characters in the film. Willem Dafoe is the Miyagi for young Arthur to learn from, going behind Orm’s back to stay loyal to the land-dwelling half-breed Aquaman. Any suspense about what might happen if Orm were to find out is obliterated in a single scene, then everything just kind of continues on. Same for Nicole Kidman as an Atlantean queen (and Arthur’s mother), Amber Heard as a resistance fighter with nothing to do, and just about everyone else in the movie. Only Wilson as Orm seems like he has the first clue what kind of movie he’s actually in and just fucking goes for it, at least most of the time.
The other most laughable issue is that the movie sets up rules for itself then ignores all of them. Specifically, every single one of these characters should be put to death at the end of the story, since they’ve all broken some pretty egregious Atlantean laws. Just because Arthur pulls a big-ass trident out of his predecessor’s cold dead hands doesn’t really change that (the movie states this pretty starkly as well). But whatever. You don’t expect realism on any real level from these movies. Just once in a while, it would be interesting if DC tried implementing some stakes into its narratives. As you’re aware, since you watch a lot of movies, this gives the audience a reason to, you know, care. At this point we’re back to where we started, looking at stills from the never-actually-coming-out Joker movie and waiting for Patty Jenkins (and Margot Robbie, for that matter) to swoop back in and make a real movie for us to watch.