Overstuffed and Flailing, DC’s Latest Doesn’t Leave a dry Seat in the House.
DIRECTED BY JAMES WAN/2018
Somewhere in the Ocean of Superhero Movies…
Since it launched in 2013, it’s been rough tides for the DC Cinematic Universe (or whatever they’re calling it). Although DC Comics has long published stories of the superhero “icons” (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and so on), their longtime competitor, Marvel, has had all the cinematic success with its scrappier, less known but more humanized characters.
By now everyone knows that DC’s own multi-film/multi-character/super-franchise has had its issues. The bad news is that it still does; though now, the issues have changed. If Wonder Woman (still DC’s only satisfying feature under this umbrella) loosened up to have a little bit of fun, the next film, Justice League, went full tilt. Justice League, though, for all of its valiant attempts at course correcting the entire kit and caboodle, remains a movie few will care to watch twice, if at all. Aquaman, the first DC movie since Justice League’s subpar showing, is likewise marred by planting its separate feet in opposite places. In that sense, it’s at least not unlike its title character.
Though not the repulsive disaster of the Zack Snyder Superman films, Aquaman, though not without it’s admirable qualities, is an unfortunately waterlogged studio expenditure.
Aquaman, though brighter and far more colorful than any of its DC predecessors, is little more than a series of weightless inevitabilities. Caught between Awe! and Pew! Pew! Pew!, Warner Brothers’/DC’s newfound realization that their movies need to have both dire stakes and be engagingly fun doesn’t quiet gel in this ballyhooed undersea excursion. The film is never sure if it wants to be Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. What we get is an overly action-y adventure of a reluctant Chosen One who, when it comes down to it, must take up his magical trident as king of Atlantis, the undersea kingdom of which his long-gone mother (Nicole Kidman) was once queen, and do some serious overthrowing.
Consequently, what we get is more of an underwater Flash Gordon (The 1980 version, sans Queen) with bits gleaned from The Matrix, and Arthurian legend. It’s all too much of a self-satisfied jumble, and a glaringly expensive one, at that. Unfortunately, unlike the situation in the story itself, no one person can save it.
Granted, more than any of the other longstanding upper tier DC superheroes, Aquaman has a lot to prove. As far as high profile butts of super-powered jokes go, before there was Hawkeye, there was Aquaman. Never mind that neither character in any way deserves such scoffing and dismissal; Aquaman’s perceived uselessness in any non-water situation has earned him decades of smug mockery. From Entourage to 40 Year-Old Virgin to Robot Chicken to whatever else, a guy who wears a bright orange shirt, rides a giant seahorse, and yes, talks to fish, has been made to have an increasingly hard time being taken seriously.
Zack Snyder, in all his infinite adolescent male wisdom, thought to instantly counter all of that by reimagining Arthur Curry (Aquaman’s real name, FYI) as a big, brooding, tattooed, shirtless, scary-eyed WWE wrestler who never was. Yeah, that ought to do it. It turns out, though, that the imposing brute they cast has far more talent beyond being beefy and savage.
Jason Mamoa, in his first major leading role, is done no favors by the wildly inconsistent tones of the film. Undeniably, he has fine charm and the gift of humor (better utilized, though, in Justice League), but both are consistently undercut by a screenplay that doesn’t know if it wants reverence or wink-wink silliness. (Richard Donner pulled it off in 1978 with Superman: The Movie. Few have since.). One can’t know for sure, but one suspects that the Arthur Curry we’re seeing in James Wan’s Aquaman is a rethink of Zack Snyder’s rethink- a softened kind of Peter Quill kind of adventurer as opposed to a purely ripped bodyguard type.
What we get is a kind of “Aquabro”; a guy who knows he’s cool, likes to call things “badass”, wants to do good but only on his own terms, and really, really likes beer. Which might prompt one to realize, did Brett Kavanaugh join the Justice League here? And, just how close of an eye should Amber Heard‘s Atlantean recruiter character, Trinity, er- Mera, keep on this oceanic frat boy??
With the hidden undersea worlds, DC has has put forth a solid, at times truly astounding effort in creating their own handful of Wakandas. (Albeit without any of that pesky culture representation). Found among them is an impressive array of reeled-in talent, including Willem Dafoe as Vulko, Bringer of Exposition; Patrick Wilson as our hero’s half brother, the wrongheaded King Orm; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a satisfyingly imposing Black Manta; Michael Beach as Manta’s father; Djimon Hounsou as the voice of King Ricou, an animated talking fish creature; and (get this) Dolph Lundren as King Nereus. All is well in the casting offices, even as chaos brews underwater. And, it’s their numerous movie-stopping backstory dumps that are most chaotic to the flow of this actioner. (It must be said, though, that the film’s composer, Rupert Gregson-Williams, has fun with musical underwater tropes and the film’s array of situations and settings.)
Exhausting and perpetually at odds with itself, Aquaman is among the least of director James Wan’s work (he of The Conjuring fame). He unquestionably understands this assignment, and knows what movie that he’s supposed to be making. For good measure, he infuses many of the fight scenes with a wild, flying camera video game aesthetic. At least at one point, the camera perspective becomes that of a first-person shooter. Early on, as Nicole Kidman’s Queen Atlanna is kicking but in the home of her landlubber hubby (Temuera Morrison), the visual kineticism is such that one might sit up and think that perhaps this could be the unique hook that’s eluded the DC film cluster thus far. But, no. It’s just more forced coolness.
Though not the repulsive disaster of the Zack Snyder Superman films, Aquaman, though not without it’s admirable qualities, is an unfortunately waterlogged studio expenditure. For all the spin and effort that’s gone into making it a legit big screen endeavor- not to mention the noticeable effort that’s compromised the film’s single greatest attribute, it’s eye-popping sci-fi-esque world-building- Aquaman leaves its audience overstimulated but underfed, and it’s sub-genre submerged.