Two years ago if you’d told me that there’d be two well-produced DC films from Warner Bros., I would have asked if you worked for Warner Bros or DC. Now, the tide has changed.
Disclaimer: there will be water, fish, storm, and swimming puns.
Coming on the heels of Wonder Woman‘s success (that was totally unintended, I swear), comes director James Wan‘s Aquaman: A self-aware bright and dumb action film finding its origin story in Arthurian legend.
Aquaman opens with a storm. Tom (Temuera Morrison), the lighthouse keeper, discovers Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed up on craggy wave-soaked rocks. She’s an Atlantian princess, soon to be queen, who’s run away because of an arranged marriage with an underwater king (glad, I’m not the only one). Atlanna marries Tom and they produce Arthur, named after the hurricane (yea, they went there). Nevertheless, their union is unnatural. When Atlantian foot soldiers discover her whereabouts, she must leave her surface dwelling family to face punishment.
Flash forward 20+ years to a submarine under attack by a ruthless band of pirates led by Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and we’re introduced to our hero. Bullet proof, tall, and merciless, Aquaman/Arthur intervenes. By intervening and making a cruel decision, Arthur creates a powerful enemy.
While the Manta sequence jump starts the film, the villain is an undercurrent for future sequels. The main conflict comes in the form of Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother. Orm hates surface dwellers because they’ve attacked Atlantians with pollution and trash. He aims to “unite” the Atlantian kingdoms for war against the polluters and rule the world (hard to argue with him here, especially as Patrick Wilson is just so delectably ruthless and manipulative). Arthur, as heir to the throne, is then recruited by Princess Mera (Amber Heard) as the one person who can stop Orm by locating the lost and legendary Trident of Neptune.
The film is basically an underwater Arthurian legend merged with the mythology of Aquaman. Described as the “one true king,” Arthur must prove to himself that he’s worthy of the throne. His quest for what amounts to Excalibur, finds him breaking into Atlantis, traveling across deserts, seas, and vanished realms, and learning that authentic leadership comes with mercy and self doubt.
Wan’s exhilarating adventure makes overtures to a few films, like Indiana Jones, The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park. There’s even quick glances of robots clearly influenced by Star Wars, and the belief that Arthur can bring balance to the world. The fight sequences incorporate slick crane and tracking shots, making for intricate and ruthless intensity. The imagining of the Atlantian world, from the armor to the creatures (there are weaponized sharks), to the several realms Orm and Arthur travel to, is well rendered. One sequence, the gateway to Atlantis, is particularly splendid. Very much mirroring Tron (visually, all of Atlantis has some strong hints) and the Bifrost in Thor—the highway beautifully merges classicism with technology—as fish-shaped ships glide through beams of light-like street lanes over a glittering glass road with giant classical statues surrounding them. The effect is big and bold. Aquaman has that kitchen sink effect, from the homages, to a gladiator battle in a trench volcano, to the humor, everything is thrown your way.
Like most superhero films, Aquaman relies on fitting a plethora of childish jokes into every scenes. Many of the verbal gaffs fall flat, but enough land to warrant the swings and misses. Jason Mamoa carries the comedy. Reflecting the same big dumb jock appeal of Thor, Mamoa’s acting adds action hero appeal. Aquaman‘s humor finds its sea legs (had to do it) in non-verbal bits, such as heavy distorted guitars playing “da-da-da” whenever a villain speaks or the explosions that interrupt every intimate moment, or any number of unexplained visuals (there’s an octopus playing drums). Wan, whose biggest works, Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious, are all horror, has made a self-aware comic book film, fitting Aquaman in the purposely dumb action film sub-genre (Wan also directed Furious 7, so he has some experience in that department). Not to mention, Willem Dafoe (making his first superhero film since Spider-Man) as Vulko (Arthur’s tutor), finds him in the most wild and ecstatic Dafoe role in a while. This film won’t be accused of taking itself too seriously.
Aquaman does wear some faults, like the need to be relevant. In this chapter, Warner Bros. went decidedly safer by incorporating a very pop oriented soundtrack. Often, the film nearly veers into Transformers territory with a brightness bordering on dullness. The inclusion of Depeche Mode and Roy Orbison (yea, you read that correctly) on the soundtrack, surprisingly doesn’t infuse Aquaman with a tonal deafness. In fact, the usage saves the soundtrack. The underwater sounds, muffled with a wet delay effect, are particularly annoying. They’re like the sounds of a cheap bumble bath. Nevertheless, these beats are relatively brief and rarely distract.
What’s not brief, is the film. Clocking in at 142 minutes, Aquaman nearly succumbs to the “fitting too much into an opening chapter” plague that has haunted other DC films. Disturbingly, the tidiness the story concludes with undercuts Aquaman‘s previous spontaneity.
Wan’s film swims to a partially anti-climactic conclusion, but still features an amazingly rendered battle sequence evoking Star Wars and the kaijus from Pacific Rim. Arthur’s, ultimately, quick personal growth probably comes at the expense of crucial drama for later films, but the earnestness to elicit said growth creates a richer early character arc than most Marvel adaptions. Bloated and overcooked, yes those two things are possible, the film somehow succeeds in its own zany weird way. Aquaman should be seen on the biggest screen possible with the least pretentiousness given. It’s official, DC and Warner Bros. have finally righted the ship.