The DC Cinematic Universe, or the DCEU, has given us its latest offering. Is Aquaman any good, or is this just another rotten fish? (and yes, prepare yourselves for some ocean puns)
Aquaman tells of the ascension of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the illegitimate son of Queen Atlanta (Nicole Kidman) of Atlantis and a lighthouse keeper, Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison aka Jango Fett). Arthur Curry is technically heir to the throne of Atlantis, but in his absence, the throne falls to his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) aka Oceanmaster, who wants to destroy the surface world and unite the disparate kingdoms of Atlantis. Mera (Amber Heard) tracks down Arthur, and together they must hunt down this mythical trident so Arthur can defeat Oceanmaster and become King of Atlantis.
Going into this movie, I wanted something different. It’s plot – a clash between two relatives for the throne with the fate of a world in the balance, is not a new story. It’s the same premise as the original Thor or Black Panther. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this exact story adapted either. The clash between Aquaman and Oceanmaster was the plot of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, an animated movie from 2015, it was an arch in the Justice League cartoon, and it was a subplot in Season 1 of the Young Justice TV series. Frankly, I’ve never been impressed with Oceanmaster as a villain, and when Young Justice replaced him with Black Manta between Seasons 1 and 2, it was welcome shift. So this movie had it’s work cut out if it was to sail these waters in a fresh way.
On this account, the movie largely succeeded, and one must credit director James Wan for catching something fresh. Comic-book movies have one of two options, either try to act like you’re in the real world, the route taken by much of the DC films, or embrace the fact you’re born of a comic-book, which is what Thor Ragnarok did, and it’s what Aquaman does too. A lot of this movie is kind of absurd, but it’s unapologetic about it’s roots, right down to the yellow scaled suit pulled straight from the comic books. The action, while maybe not as grounded as the best superhero movies, is intense, expansive, and fun to watch. Aquaman is also it’s own movie – it does no set-up for the larger DC universe, and there’s only one reference to any of the five DC movies preceding it. The scene in Atlantis during Justice League? You would’ve thought it never happened, and that was the right road for this movie to take. Focus on Aquaman, not the larger universe. The effects, which have been hit or miss with the DC movies, are well done for the most part, and a huge improvement over Justice League.
In addition, Jason Momoa is a good Aquabro. The character of Aquaman has become such a punchline that modern creators work to have people take him seriously, and they’ve taken two methods to get people to respect the character. They either make him a bro who hangs out in bars and drinks too much, like the Throne of Atlantis movie, or they make him a fiercely independent warrior king, like the Injustice video games of the Justice League TV show. The type of guy who forks you with his trident and then feeds you to his pet shark. I’m a fan of the second approach, but Momoa does a really good job at being a bro, and it’s ultimately the best approach for this movie to take. Also, the movie keeps him being himself the whole movie. What I mean by that is there’s no sudden change in his personality to move the plot along. He doesn’t go from “I don’t want to be a hero” to resolutely declaring “I must save the world” in one scene. His first fight with Oceanmaster comes about not because good guy must fight bad guy, but because Oceanmaster was baiting him and Aquaman just decides he’s going to teach his runt of a little brother a lesson. I also liked Mera, and thought she was a serviceable love interest/companion, even if I thought a great movie could’ve played us some of her character a little more. And the obligatory superhero kisses the girl before he goes to save the world takes the cake as the best looking iteration of that cliché yet.
But the problem with Aquaman is there is nothing that makes this movie exceptional. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. The movie looks good and introduces us to a cool new kingdom under the sea, but even though it spends a lot of time building Atlantis, it’s still not as cool as the Wakanda Black Panther showed us in February. And with all the time they spend world-building, there are a bunch of questions about people’s exact abilities, the tridents, or why Atlantean royalty have special powers, that are never adequately answered.
Oceanmaster is better than all the DCEU villains except Zod (which isn’t saying much), but in a year with Killmonger and Thanos, he’s completely forgettable by comparison. There isn’t anything about his motivation or character that makes him more than another world-conqueror that’s par for the course in the superhero genre. Even though I liked his portrayal more than I anticipated, the movie doesn’t make him special. Oceanmaster isn’t as cool as the secondary villain, Black Manta, who has an awesome scene at the start of the movie, but apart from another really good sequence in the middle, he disappears. He feels like Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman- he’s in this movie to be in this movie, not really because he adds anything to the story, and this is a shame, because he’s a one of the movie’s best parts.
And even as independent as Aquaman is from the larger DCEU, it still can’t outswim one of the universe’s most frustrating problems. Aquaman tries to cover more ground than it ought to. This movie tries to introduce us to Atlantis and a couple of side characters, show Aquaman’s journey from bro to king, give us an exciting clash with Oceanmaster, and introduce Black Manta. That’s a lot, and some plot lines I felt ended up underdeveloped, like Mera’s growth as a character, and some things felt shoehorned in, like Black Manta. This problem isn’t as acute as it was in Batman v. Superman and it certainly doesn’t compromise the movie. However with some underdeveloped plot points and lack of a clear theme, Aquaman struggles to break the surface in a market saturated with superhero movies.
Aquaman is a better movie than Justice League (which I like less every time I think about) and a good entry into the DCEU, but it’s not better than Wonder Woman or Man of Steel. If you’re a DC fan, a Superhero fan, or just someone wanting a good two hours at the movie theater with your friends over the holidays watching a visually appealing movie with great action, you’ll enjoy Aquaman. If you’ve become fatigued by the rush of superhero movie blockbusters as relentless as the sea, or you want a superhero movie that rises above its genre, this probably won’t be for you.
Aquaman is a 7/10. Adequate, but by no means exceptional.