Aquaman marks the sixth DCEU (DC Extended Universe) movie released since the good people at DC decided to try to emulate the (extremely) successful Marvel kids. While the movies of the DCEU have enjoyed box office success, taking just under two billion domestically and slightly under three billion in foreign markets over the past five years, the films have, with the exception of Wonder Woman (2017), been critically panned. Does Aquaman break the mold?
[SPOILER ALERT: Scroll through below to read my review of Aquaman. Direct discussion will be limited to the first fifteen minutes of the film, although it will mention the villains Aquaman faces as well.]
In a word, no. I’d rank Aquaman as my second favorite DCEU outing so far, but that is a somewhat misleading statement. Wonder Woman is like a racer that has lapped everyone else and is the clear winner, four or five minutes ahead of the pack. Aquaman is the guy looking over his shoulder just barely keeping the rest at bay behind him.
The reason, however, that it does do a little better than the other DCEU movies is, simply put, Jason Momoa. I know he annoys some people with his bro attitude, lustrous long hair, pecs of steel, abs of…okay, so I have to admit, he is pretty close to the perfect male specimen. I have been forewarned by more than one female friend that I have to go kindly on him, as they have a soft spot for him. Thing is, I do too. I think Momoa is absolutely 100% having a blast while playing Aquaman, and his sheer enjoyment enabled me to enjoy what was, otherwise, a fairly bland picture.
The primary plot of the movie follows young Arthur Curry [Jason Momoa]’s origins, utilizing no fewer than six younger actors (one “unnamed infant”, a pair of twins, and three older boys) to show Curry’s growth into the ridiculously musclebound frame of Jason Momoa. The background feels sandwiched in, as the main focus is on Curry’s half-brother, King Orm [Patrick Wilson] of Atlantis, and his desire to bring war to the surface due to their crimes against the ocean. This is, of course, a thinly veiled critique of humanity’s ridiculous abuse of the planet, and one of his early acts draws attention to important issues such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; however, where this could have been a fruitful direction for the film to take, it is treated as a series of brief news clips in a one minute montage, and then never broached again.
Speaking of “hey, this here is an Important Theme” moments, the first action sequence of the film involves Aquaman making a choice while rescuing the sailors aboard a Russian submarine from undersea pirates that results in a death, and some heavy-duty repercussions later (indeed, Aquaman’s isn’t the only origin story we get here – he essentially creates Black Manta in this moment). The thing is, the fatal choice made feels entirely at odds with the otherwise happy-go-lucky attitude Momoa exudes as Curry throughout the rest of the film. There really isn’t any reason for him not to show some degree of compassion in the moment, or to bring the bad guys to justice in some less final way, and his inability to read the possible future outcome of his choices simply makes him look like an immature, bloodthirsty buffoon that learned nothing during his time with the Justice League fighting Steppenwolf in 2016’s Justice League. It’s one step forward, two giant steps back for the character.
Yes, there are special effects galore, and yes, there is a fairly interesting backstory hinted at, but so many choices in the film speak to the fact that there were five writers directly involved with the script, giving action/horror alum director James Wan (Saw, Furious 7) something of a dog’s lunch to work with. He obviously recognizes the strengths that Momoa possesses, utilizing him well, but he fails to get the best work out of veteran actors such as Willem Dafoe (Vulko), Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus), and Patrick Wilson (King Orm). In addition, the stakes of the movie never really seem to be all that high. While there is a lot of talk about how advanced and dangerous Atlantean technology will be to the surface, it is never really expanded upon other than through some absolutely gob-smacking undersea battles. However, sometimes the effects fall flat, such as the CGI used to make Nicole Kidman (Atlanna) and Temuera Morrison (Tom Curry) appear twenty years younger than the film’s present day. We’re still not quite at the point where this can be done without a little walk down the Uncanny Valley.
I did find the movie mildly entertaining, and I felt that it sets itself up well for possible future outings. Aquaman faces two of his primary comic book enemies, we are introduced to each of the post-Atlantis nations living in the ocean, and there are some new potential allies to help the Justice League in its future endeavors. It is, however, in the end a missed opportunity to build on the strengths that Wonder Woman showed us all the DCEU is capable of.
Steve’s Rating: (6 / 10)
Aquaman has some really fun moments spoiled by a confused plot and some truly hammy acting. At least Jason Momoa is having a blast.
Director: James Wan
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall (screenplay by); Geoff Johns & James Wan and Will Beall (story by); Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris (Aquaman created by)
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Runtime: 2 hrs. 23 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13