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Non-Review Review: Aquaman

Aquaman is not a disaster on the scale of Justice League. It is perhaps closer to Green Lantern.

This comparison makes a certain amount of sense. Both Aquaman and Green Lantern are defined by the influence of writer Geoff Johns. Johns is an interesting figure, having broken into the entertainment world through film. He famously worked as a personal assistant to Richard Donner. However, Johns is best known for his work in comic books, particularly at DC when he enjoyed long character-defining runs on properties like Justice Society of America, The Flash and Green Lantern. A controversial figure, Johns is a strong writer with a great sense of a property’s core appeal.

Sink or swim time.

However, Johns’ skill with comic books does not translate to cinema. Green Lantern was largely influenced by Johns’ own work on the title, which remains a highlight of DC’s twenty-first century output. The feature film employed Johns’ characterisation of Hal Jordan, ported over a lot of his revamped mythology for the character, and even employed one of his own creations as the primary villain. However, a good comic book run did not translate to a good film. Green Lantern was more focused on being a faithful adaptation of the comic than a satisfying film in its own right.

Aquaman suffers from the same fundamental issue. The movie is packed to the gill with continuity references, particularly to Johns’ reworking and reimagining of the character, which has been repackaged as an omnibus collection to mark the release of the film. Aquaman features an incredibly dense mythology that is often delivered via awkward exposition dump, with characters bouncing between long tiring world-building dialogue scenes and epic computer-generated spectacle. Ironically, there is no room for any of this to breathe.

A Mera mistep-a.

Aquaman is an interesting character and concept. Nominally, there is nothing any more or less ridiculous about the character than there is about any other superhero. Bruce Wayne works out his grief by dressing as a giant bat and getting teenage boys to dress in short-shorts; Captain America is a blonde-haired and blue-eyed super soldier dressed in the stars and stripes; Wonder Woman is a bondage princess with an invisible jet and a rope that makes people tell her the truth. Is an aquatic superhero any more absurd, on the face of it?

Aquaman has struggled to live down the pop cultural reputation that he developed thanks to the television series Super Friends, where his aquatic powers were treated as something with much less practical utility than anything that Superman could do. As a result, the character has spent decades over-compensating. He famously let the Justice League second-stringers during the “Detroit” era. Then he lost his hand and grew his hair in the nineties. Then he was a joke in Entourage. More recently, he was a gag in the Teen Titans Go! to the Movies trailer.

The Life Aquatic with Arthur Curry.

There is an insecurity about the character that runs through a lot of the work on the character. It was arguably reflected in the casting of the hypermasculine Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, the gag being that Aquaman should be the most macho member of the Justice League. The design of the character evokes Peter David’s reinvention of the superhero in the nineties. Geoff Johns’ first issue of the “new 52” reboot spent an inordinate amount of time on jokes at the expense of the character.

This insecurity runs through Aquaman. The title card is preceded by a sequence in which the title character is bullied during a school trip to an aquarium. “Aw, Arthur’s trying to talk to the fishes!” his tormentors taunt, an accusation with which most Aquaman fans will be very familiar. However, this is promptly followed by a sequence in which Arthur demonstrates how “badass” talking to fish would actually be. In an effective piece of narrative structuring, that ability to talk to fishes becomes an essential part of the movie’s climax.

“I thought you said he was dead.”
“No. I said he speaks with the fishes.”

A lot of Aquaman feels like it is overcompensating, like it has to assert that its title character is cool. As an adult, the character is introduced thwarting the hijacking of a nuclear sub. “I’m missing happy hour for this,” he sighs as he frees the Russian crew. This version of Aquaman is something of a hyper-aggressive jock who says things like “all right!” and “badass!” to himself as he works his way through a submarine brutalising marine terrorists.

Wan frames Arthur’s arrival on the submarine as a beauty shot. The camera is positioned low, to make Momoa look even more imposing. He straightens up, his impressive back to the camera. He gently whips his long wet hair over his shoulder, his eye catching the camera and flirting with the audience. “Permission to come aboard,” he smirks, delivered more like a cheesy chat-up line than wry bon mots. If it is possible for a superhero to be “too much”, the cinematic version of Arthur Curry is just that.

How could I say no to those eyes?

Aquaman spends a lot of time demonstrating its title character’s bad-ass credentials. He drinks heavily. He loves his dad. He has a rough and ready attitude, but isn’t disrespectful to women. He seems indifferent to the concept of collateral damage during his superheroics, to the point that his opening submarine rescue serves to set in motion no fewer than two grand supervillain schemes. He reacts dramatically to everything that he encounters.

Jason Momoa is charming in the role, and the only reason that Arthur Curry is remotely tolerable as a character. As a superhero, Aquaman comes across as the sort of superhero that Zack Snyder was accused of creating in Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a muscle-bound jock who is largely defined by the fact that he is so powerful that he doesn’t actually need to answer to anybody. There is an interesting story to be told with a character like that, but this is not it.

Arthur and Mera bond over a shared love of Call Me By Your Name.

The plot of Aquaman is driven by what is a cornerstone plot of the Aquaman franchise, the threat of war between Atlantis and the surface world. This is a go-to Aquaman plot for a number of reasons, most obviously because it plays to Aquaman’s strengths as a character while contextualising him in a way that is relevant to the real world. Atlantis can often seem stuffy and abstract, something from mid-tier high-fantasy. The threat of war with the surface world makes it much more immediately engaging because it creates stakes.

As such, it is no surprise that this plot has been a major part of several prominent efforts to boost the character’s profile over the years. In Justice League, The Enemy Below hinged on similar tensions between Atlantis and the surface world. A false flag attack on Atlantis and the ocean nation’s retaliation formed the basis of the Throne of Atlantis crossover written by Geoff Johns that helped solidify Aquaman as one of the key titles of the line-wide “new 52” relaunch.

Call to Orms.

The plot comes with all manner of narrative hooks baked in. It provides a compelling nemesis in Arthur’s half-brother Orm. It forces Aquaman to choose between the surface world and his ocean kingdom. It allows for engaging political manoeuvring. It weds Aquaman to a familiar and engaging story template. The threat of war between Atlantis and the surface world is pretty much the safest possible choice for an Aquaman film. The success of movies like Thor and Black Panther demonstrate that audiences like royal epics intertwined with their superhero blockbusters.

However, Aquaman seems reluctant to commit to that fairly straightforward premise. There are a number of possible reasons for this. The critical drubbing that Batman vs. Superman received may have scared the studio away from anything resembling a high-stakes political superhero movie, certainly anything that would involve men in uniforms debating military tactics. Similarly, the plot of Justice League already focused on a potential invasion of Earth by a pseudo-mystical force, so Aquaman might have been reluctant to commit to a similar story.

All that glitters.

As a result, Aquaman sets up this epic conflict… and then completely ignores it. Orm aims to become king of all the underwater tribes and launch an invasion of the surface world for vaguely defined reasons. He announces his intent by ravaging the world with giant title waves that conveniently was up battle ships and garbage and anything else that humans have been dumping the water for centuries. And then… nothing happens.

There is a single quick snippet of a single news story discussing these massive gigantic tidal waves that apparently dismantled the entire United States military, and even that news story exists in the context of a larger mythology reference. There is never any suggestion that the surface world is particularly interested in Orm’s declaration of war. There is never a hint that any other superheroes like Batman or Superman might possibly be investigating. Orm commits an act that most likely killed thousands of people… and nothing happens.

Under the sea, under the sea…

It is a story beat that feels like a relic from an early draft of the story process, something intended to provide scale and stakes for the story that was quickly brushed aside after the strong aggressive reaction to the climax of Man of Steel and the opening scenes of Batman vs. Superman. This is stock superhero movie devastation, like the attack on New York in The Avengers or the death of half the universe in Avengers: Infinity War. It is an event that should be an epoch-defining moment, but which is portrayed as bloodless and vacuous.

This is an issue for the plot of Aquaman because it removes the primary tension of this particular plotline. Because Aquaman has no interest in the surface world, there is never any meaningful sense of Arthur Curry’s attachment to the world above water. The climax of Aquaman argues that Arthur should be a leading Atlantis because he is “a bridge” between the land and the sea, but that doesn’t work because Aquaman never gives a sense of Arthur as a person who exists in the world in any meaningful way. It undercuts any strong thematic through line from the premise.

Willem Dafriend or Willem Dafoe?

Orm’s attack on the surface world serves to summon Arthur to Atlantis, and that is when the plot really begins to fray. While Aquaman is immediately and viscerally clear about what kind of movie it doesn’t want to be, it is less clear about what it proactively wants to be. Director James Wan works hard to maintain momentum through the film, but Aquaman bounces from big idea to big idea with no real focus or attention.

It initially looks to be a royal family drama in Atlantis, with Arthur confronting his half-brother to stop the war. However, it then transforms into a weird eighties archeology adventure in the style of Romancing the Stone or Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with questionable cover of Toto’s Africa and nonsensical pseudo-riddles left by long-dead kings. Then it is Lovecraftian horror, but in neon. Then it becomes a family reunion and fantasy spectacular. There is very little linking each of these disparate genres, except that the lead character in each is Aquaman.

Where there’s a Wilson, there’s a way, son.

The plot structure is so warped that it largely isolates Orm from the action. Patrick Wilson is an underrated performer, and casting Wilson as a superhero villain is a great idea. He was a standout in Watchmen. More than that, the idea of an insecure relative jockeying for political authority has informed two of the best comic book movie villains of the last two decades; Loki and Kilmonger. Unfortunately, Aquaman has no idea what to do with Orm for most of the film, so he spends a lot of the film amassing a vast army in kingdoms with which the audience has no familiarity.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with Aquaman, and it is an idea that carries over from Green Lantern. Aquaman seems more interested in transposing comic book continuity to the screen than it does in telling a self-contained and engaging story. Aquaman is filled with little nods and references to continuity, sly winks to the character’s long history and his vast continuity. However, these references often feel crammed in, obstacles for the plot to navigate around.

Something fishy is afoot.

Indeed, a lot of Aquaman is adapted from Geoff Johns’ comic book run on the character. Some of these plot elements might be considered spoilers, but the relationship between the various underwater kingdoms, the mythology of “the dead king” and his sceptre, “the trench”, a false-flag submarine attack on Atlantis, even a post-credits tease about a future villain team-up. That one news story covering the tidal waves seems to exist primarily as in-joke, a way to shoehorn in the character of Doctor Stephen Shin as played by Randall Park.

These references crowd out the narrative and over-complicate what should be a fairly simple arc. The dialogue is clumsy. When Orm is told that the “surface dwellers” will destroy themselves, he responds with, “But not before they destroy us first.” That is a very strange piece of dialogue; “before” or “first” is redundant. The dialogue includes po-faced references to “surface weapons” and “sacrifices to the Trench”, exposition about the history of Atlantis and the ritual traditions of this underwater city that is somehow deployed both ad hoc and at length.

I need to see a Manta ’bout a fish.

There is an interesting way to do this. Indeed, the dialogue occasionally hints at intriguing ideas, but then brushes them aside because it has to fit another info-dump into the scene. For example, much is made of the monstrous “trench.” They are described as mindless animals, and can apparently be controlled through the right relic. If this is the case, then why does Atlantis “sacrifice” people to “the trench”? Is it the result of some old-fashioned religious ritual? Is it the terms of a brokered peace? Is just a sadistic form of execution?

Similarly, the film glosses over a number of unsettling details within the main plot. Arthur is the child of Atlanta, a queen who fled an arranged marriage. However, she surrendered herself in order to save her lover and her son. After surrendering herself, she conceived Orm. What exactly are the sexual politics at play there? What exactly is the relationship between Orm and Atlanta? Does Atlanta resent Orm? Does Orm know that he wasn’t the product of a loving union, but at best coercion and at worst assault? These are big questions the film brushes aside.

Shark weak.

Aquaman repeatedly places fidelity to the comic book ahead of its own narrative integrity. This is most obvious with the character himself. Aquaman would make the most sense if Arthur Curry had very little experience of Atlantis and its people. It’s certainly possible to read his scene with Mera in Justice League as the story of an exile still discovering who he is. However, Aquaman insists that Arthur be at least passingly familiar with his history and his heritage.

This causes all manner of issues when trying to introduce the audience to the character’s world. After all, in superhero films, the lead character is often a viewpoint character; the audience learns about Krypton as Superman discovers his heritage, the audience learns about the X-Men as Wolverine spends time with them. In other stories, like Thor, there is a human character who serves that purpose. Aquaman finds itself in an awkward position where the main character already knows a lot about who he is, and there is no human character to deliver exposition.

Making a splash.

The solution is inelegant, with the film cross-cutting flashbacks from a sort of proto-origin story into what is effectively an origin story itself, a weird level of recursion for a movie that is already over-stuffed. When Arthur first goes swimming with Mera, the sequence is intercut with flashbacks to Arthur as a child learning to swim with his mentor Vulko. When Arthur is preparing for ritual combat with Orm, he flashes back to combat training as a teenager with Vulko. It is a clumsy way of fixing a problem with a much easier solution; just have Arthur learn these things in the present.

Similarly, the film suffers from its need to develop the antagonists in line with source material. The villainous Black Manta actually gets a very effective introductory sequence, in which his brutal murder of a submarine crew is juxtaposed with a tender conversation between father and son. However, Aquaman invests far too much time in what amounts to an origin sequence for a henchman. He even gets a weird suiting up montage inexplicably set to a song about how the character has “all the time” to make Aquaman his own, despite clearly working to a deadline.

Cape of good hope.

As with Justice League, there is a very strong sense of insecurity around Aquaman. On top of borrowing so much from the source material, the film draws quite heavily from the Marvel Studios films. The aforementioned “suiting up” sequence with Black Manta might have been lifted from an Iron Man film. There is a high-speed fighter chase sequence that looks like it might easily have been borrowed from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. The throwdown between Aquaman and Orm owes a lot in design to Thor: Ragnarok.

The film also suffers with tone. As with Justice League, there is a palpable insecurity about taking anything remotely seriously. As such, Aquaman is punctuated with knowing self-aware gags, as if to assure the audience that nobody is taking anything too seriously. This isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. Justice League asked Momoa to play the team’s plucky comic relief, and the sense that Momoa is enjoying himself is one of the film’s few truly appealing facets.

Ensuring the villains get their just deserts.

The big issue is that these gags are often crammed in wherever the script and production design can find room, and that is often juxtaposed with what should be fairly heavy dramatic beats. At one moment, Arthur and Orm are preparing to face off for the throne. Arthur makes a confession about always wanting to meet his “baby brother”, which he plays off as a cruel joke. However, the sequence is emotionally charged. However, the scene then cuts to a titleboard for the fight that is hilariously weighted in favour of Orm and against Aquaman, undercutting the emotional charge.

Similarly, one big fight sequence finds Mera wrestling with an assassin who can only breath water. When his breathing apparatus breaks, he is forced to desperately improvise leading to some very broad toilet humour. However, this sequence is cross cut in a showdown between Arthur and Black Manta, which is rooted in very tangible and visceral emotional stakes. The juxtaposition does not work, massively undercutting what should be a very charged sequence.

Looking Stark.

This is a shame, because there are elements of Aquaman that come close to working. Although the computer-generated imagery can become very cluttered, especially towards the climax, there is something to be said for the production design. There are a lot of smooth white surfaces and bright colourful lights. There are sequences where the water seems to glow with a phosphorescent rainbow effect, and it fits very well with the idea of Atlantic. The production looks like something from the late sixties or early seventies, the time when pop culture was obsessed with Atlantis.

In keeping with that throwback aesthetic, Rupert Gregson-Williams gives Atlantis itself a compelling and engaging soundtrack. As Arthur and Mera visit the sunken city, the synth rises on the soundtrack, soaring as the couple dive. It evokes that nostalgic science-fiction vibe, occasionally even recalling the work of Daft Punk on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. There are moments when the Aquaman soundtrack slips back into generic superhero mode, but those sequences in Atlantis sound quite lovely.

Unfortunately, the film never works consistently. Aquaman ends up being a bit of a wash.

8 Responses

  1. Wow. A semi Justice League?

  2. “As with Justice League, there is a very strong sense of insecurity around Aquaman. On top of borrowing so much from the source material, the film draws quite heavily from the Marvel Studios films. The aforementioned “suiting up” sequence with Black Manta might have been lifted from an Iron Man film. There is a high-speed fighter chase sequence that looks like it might easily have been borrowed from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. The throwdown between Aquaman and Orm owes a lot in design to Thor: Ragnarok.”

    For me this criticism is so unfair Darren, Marvel Studios sequences are not wholly original like Thor Ragnarok gladiator fight which is something they didnt achieved in vacuum bec for one it can be inspired by Gladiator or any 80’s action fantasy type movie and Gotg Vol.2 chase scene is obviously borrows heavily on star wars or any other space based films. And for saying this comment for me is disregarding the amount of efforts and talents that production team lend to aquaman which takes a long time to be conceived and cant be done i believed in 1 year tops for them to copy marvel studios films that was released in 2017 when the production of aquaman wraps in october in the same year. But I see your criticism tho regarding some themes doesnt have time to breathe in to make the film more socially relevant charged flick which Black Panther done well. I can also see that Thor Ragnarok maybe done the “kitchen sink ideas movie” better than Aquaman but overall I really enjoyed the flick just as i enjoyed watching Mortal Engines last week, by marvelling the artistry of vfx and spectacle of it all.

  3. Blast and botheration!

    I really thought this one was going to be fun.

  4. Well written
    Check out my review too

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