OK, let’s get one thing outta the way first: yes, Jason Momoa is gorgeous as Aquaman. He’s dripping water and shirtless, pecks heaving in the first 10 minutes of the movie when he saves a submarine. The meme was true: we get a sopping wet Jason Momoa and it’s everything fans could have wanted. Praise be to director James Wan who realized that women, gay men, and people who appreciate the male form pay to see superhero movies. The shots of Momoa seem to be crafted with the female gaze in mind. (Seriously, he is shirtless a lot and it is a gift to humankind.)
Momoa aside, this might one of the best superhero movies I’ve seen, which is a surprise considering its franchise. The DC Extended Universe had a string of critical failures: Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and Justice League. Zack Snyder directed all but three of the films; David Ayer directed Suicide Squad. It seemed like the DCEU would never catch up to the box office success and critical darling that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But after some shuffling around (including removing Zack Snyder from his directorial duties), WB has found a way to revive their flagging franchise: stop using cis straight white men for everything. While Marvel has found success with Taika Watiti directing Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler’s cultural phenomenon Black Panther, they’ve largely kept their inner circle straight, white and male. WB has taken a different route.
Patty Jenkins, director of Wonder Woman, was the first female director of a superhero film in either franchise, and Cathy Yan will soon be taking the helm on the female-led Birds of Prey (which also features several women of color.) In just a few short films, the DCEU has branched out and very well might surpass the MCU as the most relevant superhero franchise. The DCEU is moving up in the world, so watch out Marvel!
James Wan’s direction made a huge difference. Famous for his horror franchises Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, this movie played to his greatest strengths. No, nothing scary. But gorgeous tracking shots that immerse the audience in the world of the movie. Atlantis was colorful and luminescent, a step away from the dark and dour gray tones of Batman v. Superman. Each wide shot was a poster in the making, a piece of art on the silver screen. James keeps referring to the underwater Kingdom as “magical.” And he’s not wrong; I would see this movie a second time just to see the Kingdoms all over again.
The fight sequences were equally as stunning. It’s hard to come up with a unique fight scene nowadays, what with there being upwards of 20 superhero movies released to date. But the way that Wan follows the action (changing points of view, weaving in and out of different fights, creating levels within the frame) is different from the standard for a blockbuster of this magnitude. The camera dances with the fight, bobbing like a boxer before following a tossed trident. It also helps that he keeps Momoa shirtless for most of his fights. But I digress….
The characters of this film are fully-developed, which can be a forgotten piece in other hero films. Every single character has a strong motivation. Women like Mera (Amber Heard) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) are “no [damsels] in distress,” Amber Heard said at a press conference. They are powerful in their own right. James Wan noted that in many ways, they are more powerful than the men who rank above them. This point can be a bummer, knowing that two exceptional women must stand behind men who, maybe, aren’t as qualified for the job. Why couldn’t there have been a Queen of Atlantis instead of a king? That’s a different essay for a different time. (Also, there could have been at least one woman of color. Guess I have to hold out for Birds of Prey.)
Even the bad guys have strong wants and needs. Black Manta wants to avenge his father, and continue a legacy of piracy passed down from his grandfather. Orm is power-hungry, but the surface world is also polluting and destroying his homeland. He just wants to protect it. He’s an environmental zealot, like Thanos of the MCU. I want a crossover movie where Thanos and Orm team up to save/destroy the universe. #OrmWasRight
There’s also a refreshing change of pace. The rhythm and pacing meant that I never felt a lull in the plot. The movie is almost two and a half hours, but it never drags. Often in an origin story, the plot gets bogged down by the beginning of Act 3 when the hero, having lost a fight, begins to doubt himself. He runs away, has a revelation, remembers to fight for the people he loves, blah, blah, blah, and then he’s back with a vengeance. This movie doesn’t have that drag. Thanks to some wise storytelling on the part of James Wan, and the bro-ish humor of Momoa as the “halfbreed” hero, the movie remains light, fun, and quick without downplaying the important themes.
And the theme is perhaps the most unique and important part of the movie for me, a halfbreed girl in my own right. I love Jason Momoa, not just because he’s a stunning Adonis. He’s also Hapa: half-Native Hawaiian, half-white. As a half-Asian nerd of color, I never thought someone would consider making a movie where being mixed was not only celebrated, but it’s also a super power.
The story begins with a retelling of Arthur Curry’s parents’ love story. Two people from different worlds (literally) who have a mixed-bred child. That child isn’t accepted on the surface world or in Atlantis. He doesn’t belong anywhere. But his unique ancestry makes him the perfect leader, the True King of legend, and a man worthy of the respect of both worlds. A true Hapa hero. The movie makes this halfsie thread a central theme. And it was beautiful and deeply moving.
For anyone who mourned the change from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed “classic” Aquaman, go check yourself. Maybe you got some hipster racism that aligns with King Orm, obsessed with his own pure-blood breeding and entitlement. Maybe you wanted a boring, run-of-the-mill action movie. Or maybe you’ve seen the light and realized that diversity matters.
The barebones of this movie are really no different than any other origin story. A reluctant hero goes on a journey to find out why he should fight for a world that rejects him, and realizes he’s stronger when he uses his powers to save those he loves. Cookie cutter. But by putting James Wan at the helm and Jason Momoa as the lead, what is ordinary becomes something more than the sum of its parts.
So take your whole family to see the latest offering from the DCEU. There’ll be something for everyone: action, romance, heroes, and Jason Momoa’s shoulder muscles. Happy holidays to us all!
Aquaman opens in the USA on December 21.