It’s no secret that DC has had a bit of a rough go in launching their “extended universe” of interconnected superhero films. With five films having been produced in the last five years, ‘Aquaman’ now becomes the sixth entry for the Warner Bros-held comic company. It’s important to remember that this film was green-lit quite some time ago, after initial excitement about ‘Justice League’ and a “fresh” take on Aquaman – character long deemed so un-filmable that long-running TV shows made a running gag of the very idea – encouraged the powers-that-be to put the film into production. Even with the faltering of many of the DC films since, it was what it was: the company was committed to making ‘Aquaman,’ and making it big.
The plot of the film is fairly straightforward. An opening vignette explains how Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), simple human lighthouse keeper, and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), princess of Atlantis, came to produce a son, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), aka Aquaman. The bulk of the film takes place in the present day, picking up the action shortly after the events of ‘Justice League.’ The expansive underwater kingdom of Atlantis, now led by Arthur’s half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), is ready to unite and wage war on the “surface dwellers” for their pollution of the oceans; only princess Mera (Amber Heard) and royal vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) are willing to stand against Orm, and they need Arthur to return to the ocean and claim his rightful place as King of the Seas. To do so, Arthur must go on a quest to find the mythical Trident of Atlan, which is the key to having the Atlanteans recognize Arthur as their true ruler. The challenge is complicated by the pursuit of David Kane, aka the Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who has vowed revenge on Arthur after he somewhat-inadvertently allowed Kane’s father to die.
The plot, as outlined above, sounds a little “standard,” and that’s intentional; this is not a story we haven’t been given in a plethora of other forms before. For as fantastical as the visual presentation of ‘Aquaman’ truly is (the CGI is everywhere, and things on-screen do get a little “blurry” at times), each scene features a facet of the story that is fairly standard story-telling trope, and this deadens the overall impactfulness of the story being presented. Early on in the film, I started to keep track of the movies, television shows, and video games that were seemingly being referenced in each subsequent scene’s story/presentation; by the end of the film, here’s what my list looked like, in no particular order:
- Lawrence of Arabia
- The Lion King
- The Fifth Element
- National Treasure
- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
- The Lost World
- The Goonies
- The Sword in the Stone
- Assassin’s Creed
- Game of Thrones (particularly in the “miniature model” style of the film’s end credits)
- The Little Mermaid
When you have so many other films popping into your head as an “oh yeah, this was done before” frame of reference, then the film you’re watching tends to start to get lost in the shuffle, and this definitely happened with ‘Aquaman.’ It was an incredibly “busy” movie and at 143 minutes in length, it, unfortunately, felt as long and drawn-out as you might imagine.
The common thread of the films/games/TV shows listed above? They are all incredibly entertaining, and ‘Aquaman’ definitely delivers in the “popcorn movie” department. This is not a story that could have been effectively told cinematically 10-15 years ago; the visual effects, special effects, and fight/action choreography are certainly impressive, and credit director James Wan for much of this. After cutting his directorial teeth on such wonderful horror films as ‘Saw,’ ‘Insidious,’ and ‘The Conjuring,’ his frenetic work on ‘Fast & Furious 7’ earned him the right to try his hand at a tentpole-style mega-film such as this. His presence and talent are particularly felt and appreciated during the film’s key action sequences as well as the horror-centric descent into the oceanic trench late in the film.
The acting is mostly on-point here, and the mere presence of top-tier talent like Kidman and Dafoe lend a much-needed bit of gravitas to the production. Momoa continues to delight as a fresh take on the non-yellow-tighted Aquaman, and, of all people, the fabulous Julie Andrews brings some voice-over work as a gigantic mythical monster of the deep. Wilson does his best to play up the “big bad guy” role with the megalomaniacal Orm. While the role of Mera is a much-needed addition to the male-centric superhero lineup that DC has presented on-screen to date, Amber Heard is the weak point of the talent, unfortunately; many of her lines seem mumbled and it feels, with her bright red flowing hair and wide-eye princess naivete, that she’s studied her royal underwater animated Disney counterpart, Ariel, just a bit too closely.
Ultimately, the film does struggle to find a steady “vibe” throughout, with several inexplicably strange and downright goofy sequences injected at random times. For Atlanteans being able to swim and maneuver agilely through the open ocean water, they sure do use boats and automated transports a lot. A scene where Arthur and Mera get a slow-motion walk out of the ocean set to the instantly-ridiculed Pitbull “Ocean to Ocean” song is eyeroll-inducing. Speaking of Arthur and Mera – did they need to stop right in the middle of the incredibly fast-paced and bloody final battle to make out for literally about 30 seconds of on-screen time?
Tonally, the film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is the closest here is ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ just for comparison purposes. There is a woefully-bland mid-credits sequence, and no end-credits sequence, so feel free to leave the movie theater a bit earlier than you might normally think you can. When it’s all said and done, ‘Aquaman’ will likely not be the “home run” that DC was praying for to help bolster ‘Wonder Woman’ on their slate of “legitimate” entries into their film universe, but it will likely entertain the masses across the holiday season well enough.