Movie Review - Aquaman
Crap…can’t believe I forgot to write up a review for this.
So, coming to the box office a year and some change after the mixed bag that was Justice League was DC’s next stab at finding an audience with a superhero that had been the brunt of many jokes since his SuperFriends days…and likely even before that.
Now, this was actually all part of the plan…when it still existed. From Justice League, solo movies for Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg were to spin out from that. At the time of this writing, only Aquaman has made the leap…and what a leap it was. Surprising, well, practically everyone…Aquaman was such a hit with audiences that it was the first DCEU film to finally join the fabled ‘billion dollar club’ grossing $1.148 billion worldwide. The critics, however, were just as split on this one as they have been for most of DC’s offerings (so far only Wonder Woman has avoided their ire).
As easy as it would be to use this review to point out the critical double standard that appears to be in place when it comes to DC’s films, well, I’ve banged that gong enough. Instead, let’s just go through our standard review formula starting with a quick plot synopsis:
Taking place some time after the events of Justice League, Arthur Curry is now known to the world as Aquaman and, as such, has started to gradually embrace his role as an aquatic hero. When he comes across a Russian submarine under attack from a band of high-tech pirates, he finds himself entangled in a nigh-Shakespearian plot as his half-brother, Orm, king of Atlantis, has aims of not only becoming the master of all the undersea kingdoms but also making the surface world pay for their short-sighted destruction and pollution of not only the seas, but the entire Earth itself.
While it doesn’t take very long to sum up the plot, do not mistake this film as being shallow. [Oh…ha ha…I see what you did there. Your first pun is free…but don’t do it again. Puns are gross, we talked about this. – Ed.] However, that doesn’t mean what we have here isn’t entirely original. The ‘man of two worlds’, non-linear story telling through flashbacks and looming invasion themes were all done before in the divisive Man of Steel. The familial aspects and how they reflect the fates of kingdoms can be drawn back to Shakespeare or, if you wanna go more modern, well, you could certainly point to Marvel’s Thor movies if so inclined. The adventure and questing bits, along with the romantic tension that goes with them, can find their roots in the Indiana Jones films, or if you wanna go full-on 80s with your comparison, how about Jewel of the Nile and Romancing the Stone?
But that’s the thing…everyone knows a tomato. Everyone knows a pepper. Everyone knows an onion. And yet, there are countless recipes that spring forth from these common ingredients. Add a dash of the easy-going ‘Dude-bro’ charm of Jason Mamoa, a huge helping of some exceptional CGI [Note to WB: See what happens when you give your artists time to work as opposed to rushing them toward some arbitrary deadline? Oh, wait, that deadline wasn’t so arbitrary, was it? – Ed.], and just a dash of Amber Heard’s cleavage (okay, her Mera is more integral to the story and is well acted) and the end result is pretty damn good.
So as to give Mera her due, let’s take a look at the cast. After a false start as Conan, Jason Mamoa seems finally ready to headline his own franchise. While there aren’t any surprises from his character to those that viewed and/or liked his performance in Justice League, as one would expect this solo outing allows him to spread his wings a bit. His on-screen chemistry with both Amber Heard (Mera) and Temuera Morrison (his father, Tom Curry) prove to be a lot of fun. Similarly, his on-screen rivalry with Patrick Wilson’s Orm, returning to the DC Universe after his stint as Nite-Owl II in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen [Hmmmm... – Ed.] is certainly convincing as, to put it bluntly, Orm is a dick…which, of course, is a compliment to Wilson’s performance. Willem Dafoe reprises his role as Vulko…oh, wait, he was cut out of Justice League…and while he takes both a double agent and Obi-Wan mentor role here it all just seems very…meh. Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna (Arthur’s mother) bookends the film [We’d say ‘spoilers’ but come on, the film came out back in December 2018. – Ed.] providing the dual aspects of a strong woman: kicking ass in the beginning and healing wounds at the end. Speaking of strong women, yes, Amber Heard does Mera justice, proving to be just as capable as Aquaman in a fight and often times his superior when it comes to tactics and well…overall thinking. The film could have taken the easy way (like, say a certain Marvel movie) and just showed her as the full blown brains of the pair while the oafish ‘dude-bro’ was simply a blunt instrument…but like Wonder Woman before it, the writers, the director and Heard’s performance shows Mera as an equal: better at some things, not as good at other and as such a needed equal partner if the quest is to meet its completion. Dolph Lundgren, like Willem Dafoe, joins the ‘men of two worlds’ club as the first Punisher takes up the role of Mera’s father, King Nereus. Sure, like Dafoe’s performance it’s simply meh…but I’m a Dolph fan…so just seeing him is plenty awesome. Lastly we come to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta. Sadly, we really don’t get to see a lot of him, as he isn’t the main villain here serving almost as a hired hand to Orm, but the bits we do see (including the origin of his signature outfit) are very promising. An after credits sequence suggests we’ll be seeing more of him in the sequel…and I certainly hope that’s the case.
James Wan’s direction for the film is a bit of a departure from his usual horror roots…although there are moments where he’ll treat action as a jump scare and sometimes that proves annoying. However, when dealing with other elements of the story, particularly the Trench, those sensibilities serve him very well. It’s also a high complement that although the story is comprised of various genres of film that could stand on their own, he fairly deftly meshes these together into a unified whole that takes the viewer on what feels like a wild ride…and in fact it is as we hop the globe from New England to the kingdom of Atlantis to the Sahara and even to the center of the Earth. In fact, it’d be interesting to know for sure, did Wan do his research and include a nod to DC’s Skartaris, potentially setting up a Warlord film? Who can say? But the fact that fans can ask the question is always a plus and a feather for the director’s cap.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score. Thankfully, like with his score for Wonder Woman, he continues to show that he’s grown beyond his Hans Zimmer apprenticeship as he weaves both a symphonic score as well as some synthwave-esque sounds for scenes focused on Atlantis. And, let’s face it, the minute you introduce a little synthesizer (or a lot) to a score, I’m there. Sure, he’s no John Carpenter, but who is? Regardless, it’s this unique direction in sound that not only helps to differentiate between the two worlds, but also creates a singular audio experience for the listener that I quite enjoyed. [Leaving us all befuddled as to why you haven’t bought the soundtrack yet. – Ed.] I think my only gripe would be the insertion of Pitbull's 'Ocean to Ocean' at the opening of the Sahara sequence...it's a little jarring. But at the same time...there's some cribbed portions of Toto's Africa...so, you know, it's still cool. [Only in your head, 80s boy. - Ed.]
Aquaman was exactly the rebound that the DCEU and Warner Bros needed after the failings of the butchered theatrical cut of Justice League. Sure, critics continued to be split, but audiences found the lighter tone and tilt toward more full-blown adventure to be a bit more like what they’ve come to expect from comic book movies thanks to the paradigm established by the dominant Marvel Studios…and as such rewarded the film accordingly with the first DCEU film to break a billion dollars. With its quick pace, fantastic undersea visuals and tongue planted firmly in cheek, Aquaman might not singlehandedly right the DCEU’s woes, but for most…including myself…it’s a fantastic rebound and a great response to any fishy jokes you might have heard about the character.