So we all know that DC and its Extended Universe got off to a rocky start and last year’s “Justice League” didn’t exactly inspire hope that the franchise was headed in the right direction. One movie that did inspire hope however was the standalone “Wonder Woman” film which proved to be a fun and exhilarating thrill ride with plenty of social subtext to spare. DC looked to continue the success of its standalone character movies with “Aquaman”, the last big blockbuster of 2018. With Jason Mamoa returning to play the titular hero and James Wan (of horror genre and “Furious 7” fame) at the helm a lot was riding on this film to help keep the DC Extended Universe afloat. How well does this undersea adventure hold up though? Let’s dive in (expect more puns like this throughout the review, sorry not sorry). This is my review of “Aquaman”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Aquaman” takes place after the events of “Justice League” with Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) now a household name. Curry has started to reluctantly embrace his role as a protector of the seas but still feels animosity towards Atlantis for killing his mother after his birth. Meanwhile below the water’s surface Aquaman’s half brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) sits on the throne of Atlantis and begins a crusade to unite the underwater realms against a surface world he believes is due for punishment for how they have treated the ocean. Orm’s betrothed Mera (Amber Heard) works against Orm to recruit Aquaman to challenge for the throne leading the heroes on a journey to retrieve an ancient weapon that could sway the balance of power with Orm’s forces and a surface-dwelling pirate named Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) on their tale.
So I’ll get right into it saying I agree with many critics that “Aquaman” has no business being as good as it is. This is a REALLY fun movie that balances a lot of different elements in a nice package. There are some problems to be sure, but there’s plenty to love as well. At times “Aquaman” feels like a typical comic book movie ripped right out of the 90s, but it proves to be much more. It does touch on where Arthur Curry came from, but it spends most of the narrative finally exploring Aquaman as a character beyond the booze and the badass one-liners. Jason Mamoa feels perfect for this role and brings the right blend of attitude and personality to a comic book character that has been the butt of many jokes as people have failed to take him seriously over the years. The “Aquaman” movie puts all of those doubts to rest by exploring so many different facets of the hero’s character from the deeper emotional core behind his rough exterior to making every one of his powers, including his ability to communicate with sealife, not only important but actually useful in a fight.
Aquaman is not the only great thing about his own movie though. I really liked the side characters including Amber Heard as Aquaman’s love interest and partner Mera, Willem Dafoe as Aquman’s mentor Vulko, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as an admittedly campy but delightfully entertaining and threatening Black Manta. But by far the one that stands out the most other than the hero is the most relatable and definitely one of the most complex villains any DC movie has ever produced in my opinion. That is King Orm, portrayed by Patrick Wilson. Orm is a fascinating villain who believes his half brother to be inferior because he is a “half breed” and thus fights for pure blood rule across Atlantis. His crusade against the surface world seems to be driven by two things, the desire for power and the desire to stop humanity from destroying the world through pollution and war. Interestingly enough the film never reveals which of these two motives is the true driving force behind Orm’s actions. With that said it makes him easier to appreciate on a human level. On one hand his actions may be driven by nobility and on the other it could be his own greed and selfishness driving his cause. Really they actually blend and it always feels like Orm has the best of intentions in mind but that he’s doing all of this not because he feels like he has to, but because he wants to. He will benefit from it as much as his people. It’s a win win, he gets the thrown and his people survive that threat of man. I LOVED this villain. I loved everything about him and he is by far the best baddy in the DC Extended Universe films so far.
I will admit that “Aquaman” is not the best written film script-wise but what it lacks in substance on paper is makes up for in visual style. This movie loks amazing with great set pieces and backdrops and contains some absolutely jaw dropping and exhilarating action sequences which is further testament to James Wan’s hidden talent for bringing the fun and spectacle out of a scene. The CGI, while obvious, strikes a fun balance between over the top and just ridiculous enough and it feels like there’s real stakes in every battle. This feels like what James Wan was truly going for in this film, a movie that ups the stakes and captures the massive scope of its conflict in the most epic way possible and he succeeded. “Aquaman’s” battles, especially the underwater war scenes in the climax, are more fun than anything we’ve seen in a DCEU movies so far, and with that in mind I can safely say that this is the most fun I’ve had watching a DC film since “The Dark Knight”. It’s just pure, grade-A escapism and pulse pounding fun that creates one hell of a time at the movies.
I also have to give props to the design of the characters. A lot of comic accurate aspects were built into this film including Orm and Aquaman’s eventual uniforms which are both very close to the suits they wear in the source material. Black Manta gets a fun modernization that still maintains his classic look, especially with his trademark helmet. Mara’s uniform is very reminiscent of the comics too and the film as a whole has that special comic book vibe that reminds us we’re not supposed to take everything so seriously. It’s clear that James Wan and the rest of the filmmakers behind the scenes respected the source material and the fans and wanted to do something unique and new with Aquaman while still capturing what made the character so enjoyable in the first place. I felt like I was watching an epic tale ripped right from the pages and while many comic inspired films try to present these characters in the context of reality with a character like Aquaman it’s okay, and hell downright necessary to stretch the boundaries a bit. “Aquaman’s” ability to mix this grounded reality with the fantasy of a superhero story is what helps it stand out the most.
What “Aquaman” lacks most is polish. There’s a lot of great things about this movie, but it does kind of feel like the filmmakers threw whatever they could at the screen, mixed it up and it just happened to come out looking awesome. But that also caused them to forsake the finer details of the film including some significant plot holes in how this movie lines up with the previous DCEU properties as well as a pretty shoddy and basic script. I mean don’t get me wrong the banter and one-liners are fun to watch, but there’s just something very wooden about the way characters talk and their dialogue. It doesn’t feel like it’s the acting holding it back. There’s not a lot of inspiration in how the script was written even if the rest of the movie feels genuinely inspired and BECAUSE the rest of the film is so fun and beautiful these clear errors in writing stand out like a sore thumb. It’s apparent that there was more work into making the visuals and action memorable and interesting than the actual script.
I also wasn’t a fan of how the film kept swapping back from the present day to Aquaman’s childhood. Numerous times in the first half of the movie we see flashbacks to when Vulko was training Arthur at a young age, grooming him to be the next king of Atlantis and a bridge between two worlds. But every single one of these flashbacks feels out of place and they all play into some of the most cliché aspects of this story. Not to mention the transitions are jarring and sudden with no real flow or purpose for shifting from one moment in time to the other. It almost feels like the flashbacks were afterthoughts included in the film to help summarize how Arthur became the hero he is today, but we don’t need it. We don’t have to understand how he was trained because this is spoon-fed to us throughout the film through exposition and the hero’s interactions with his mentor. While it does add a nice moment to the final battle that shows how far Aquaman has come it would have been more badass for us to see him adapt his own style into combat rather than seeing him become someone he was trained to be. I mean the film talks about how it’s what makes Aquaman different that makes him so special. Showing us that what he is becoming is the result of someone else’s teachings and not his own innate strength and style kind of (another bad pun) waters down how heroic and grand Aquaman is meant to be.
Finally, the pacing of the entire film is off as well, especially for a movie nearly 2.5 hours long. Sometimes it does feel that the filmmakers just wanted to get from point A to point B as fast as they could. Honestly though this proved to be the least annoying error in this film by the end of it all. Whenever I was given a moment to care about how sudden the shift from one moment to the next really was something else worked it way in to grab my attention back, but it can’t be denied that the flow of the film could have certainly been improved. As I said it feels like they threw as much as they could into this movie to see what would stick and thankfully most of it does, but as a consequence we get a similar problem that we had with “Man of Steel”, “Batman v. Superman” and especially “Justice League” where we feel rushed in one moment while another scene feels like its taking forever. “Aquaman” is nowhere near as annoying or irritating as its predecessors in this regard, but it’s still a glaring weakness in the film that seems to permeate the DCEU.
“Aquaman” is not perfect, but it doesn’t really try to be either. James Wan went into this film with a vision and it feels like he saw it through despite its imperfections. In many ways this is the spectacle that the DCEU has been promising for years, but I don’t think anyone expected it to come from a property like Aquaman. The characters are fun, the action is incredibly entertaining, the story is engaging in its own special way and there’s a lot of respect for the source material which should have fans of the property overjoyed by the final result. There are clear blemishes throughout the project including uneven pacing, a forced origin element we honestly didn’t need and a subpar and simple script that feels much less inspired than the rest of the project. All that considered though I had a lot of fun watching this movie, so much so I’ve already decided I’m going to see it again. If this is the kind of material we’re going to get going forward the DCEU may actually have hope for the future after all.