Forgive me Warner Bros. for I have sinned and used a Disney-inspired title for your review. That said, I think it couldn’t be more apt, because we finally have a DC Film that has achieved Marvel Studios-levels of fun: Aquaman!
I think it’s fair to say it has been a long, uphill battle for WB and their DCEU since 2013’s Man of Steel debuted, and I think it’d be beating a dead horse diving into the complicated history of the mixed bag that is their successes and failures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a studio in such a complicated situation where a franchise gets both its biggest hit and its biggest flop within the same year (last year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League). So how do you press on? What do you do? Salvage things or reboot? After seeing the direction James Wan and the studio have taken Aquaman, not only do I think there’s a chance to salvage things, but I also absolutely think they should.
Unlike its predecessors, Wan has managed to craft a movie that embraces the heck out of the fantastical aspects of DC Comics, which makes a fan and hardcore comic book reader like myself gleeful to experience the world of Atlantis on screen. Much like the first Thor and Black Panther, the world-building on display is both fun and epic in scale, as Aquaman treats us to a completely different, colorful world of insane advanced tech and customs. Through Arthur Curry’s (Jason Momoa) eyes we get fully immersed in Atlantean culture, as Wan unapologetically and unironically showcases grown men in armor riding giant seahorses, grand underwater kingdoms covered by illuminated force fields, and ginormous creatures of the deep — things we’d never known we’d wanted to see until now.
And that’s my point, Wan is doing what the best comic book movies do, by setting the realism within the characters, but keeping the world grand and rooted in fantasy. The tone is light, but serious when it needs to be, without ever being tedious or overly morose; very reminiscent of one of Bruce Timm’s DC Animated Universe shows, particularly Justice League or Justice League Unlimited. And, we need future DC movies to follow suit, as there’s so much untapped potential in those shows and the pages of the comic books. Not every hero in the DC Universe has to be Batman, and Aquaman as a film doesn’t try so hard to be “dark, gritty, and rooted in reality” which is its greatest strength — something none of the other DCEU films understood, but Wan clearly does! And, as such, it makes the audiences feel transported, and allows them to completely buy into this aspect of the DC Universe.
Furthermore, as a director, Wan is spectacularly good at action. Gone are the dull, overly dramatic, useless slow motion shots from previous films like Batman V Superman, or even sadly, Wonder Woman. Instead, Wan creates dynamic and fluid action sequences that feel fast-paced and brutal; a few stand outs being a fun fight with Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna near the beginning of the film, and a rollicking chase/battle sequence in Italy with Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) midway through the movie.
That said, the strength isn’t just in Wan’s superb direction, but this movie also succeeds so much because of one word: Momoa! While it’s unfair to call this a breakout, given that Momoa has been a huge star for years now, his performance here is evidence that he should be taking over Dwayne Johnson’s and Chris Hemsworth’s roles as Hollywood’s go-to for crazy jacked charisma machines. He can go from hilarious to serious so seamlessly and realistically, and leads both the cast and the movie into the aforementioned perfect tone. Momoa gives Arthur Curry the perfect amount of humor, heart, guilt, recklessness and eventual responsibility that allows us to believe his arc and root for him as a character and a king.
Apart from Momoa, majority of the cast brings it as well. Willem Dafoe is awesome as Vulko, Arthur Curry’s mentor, caught in the risky position of being a double agent for Arthur and Atlanna within Orm’s kingdom. Abdul-Mateen II is at once menacing yet sympathetic as Black Manta. Kidman and Temuera Morrison bring a sweetness to the roles of Queen Atlanna and Tom Curry, Aquaman’s parents.
From an acting standpoint, the only weaker aspects from the main cast are sadly Amber Heard and Patrick Wilson, who are doing the best with what’s written for them. One of the areas about Aquaman following in the example of a Marvel Studios film is that, for as fun as it is, the roles for both the female lead and the villain are sadly lacking. Heard should honestly be receiving co-billing on the film, as Mera plays such a significant role in this story and the comics. But for a character as powerful as she is, she is constantly being overshadowed as the straight man to Momoa’s loose cannon. The movie makes it solely Arthur’s story, which means Mera’s role is relegated to her assisting her king in taking the throne, given he’s the chosen king who is the only one who can unite the worlds of land-dwellers and Atlanteans. She does get some great action scenes and badass moments, primarily revolving around her hydrokinetic powers. But from a writing standpoint, there’s a bit of a flat, cold, robotic nature to Mera, and forced chemistry between Heard and Momoa, that should have been way more engaging, given the character’s portrayal in the comics. She’s essentially a sounding board for Momoa to crack quips against as she stoically stares at him in annoyance.
As for Orm, again, Wilson tries to do what he can, but can only do so much with a character that’s essentially an eco-terrorist enacting the whole “take over the world” ploy. There’s not much pathos there, so a Loki he’s not. A Malekith? Probably. We’ve seen the whole “create an army to take over the world” shtick so many times, it’s hard to care, even though Wilson is still attempting to put in his all.
Another weak point about the film was really the visual effects. Unlike the times when I was transported to Wakanda, Asgard, or even Titan this past summer, I couldn’t help leaving Aquaman feeling that Atlantis looked very cartoony. It’s probably one of the DCEU’s trademarks that they’ve never really fixed — the green screen hokiness of the environments. Don’t get me wrong. The world-building, as I said, is stellar. The visual presentation of the worlds, however, looked better in the concept art than the actual film. I bought the world and the Atlantean culture in spite of the cartoony effects, because Wan and team sell it in the narrative. But, I wish the visuals supported this better.
Furthermore, a lot of Aquaman feels familiar, taking elements from Prince of Persia, Indiana Jones, Pacific Rim, and as previously mentioned Thor. That’s not to say it’s completely unoriginal, but admittedly, we have seen elements from this movie before — just not in a DC movie. And, all things considered, that’s at least saying something.
I digress with the nitpicks. None of the above ruined the experience for me, and I found myself still having a good time, rooting for the hero, and (for the first time ever) rooting for the DCEU to succeed. With Aquaman, the good most definitely drowns out the bad, with great instincts and direction from Wan and a strong, charismatic performance from Momoa that makes it difficult to resist this movie. Is it perfect? No. But it certainly is the most fun DC movie to-date, and in this reviewer’s opinion, the best film in this DCEU canon. Here’s hoping we get to see more of this DC in the future.
Aquaman swims into theaters December 21, 2018.