After quite a few flops, both critically and in the box office, how does Aquaman stack up against the rest of the “DC Extended Universe”? As it turns out, Aquaman is a significant step up from the likes of the atrocious Batman v. Superman and the drab Justice League. Still, the film doesn’t quite reach the height of 2017’s Wonder Woman.
Jason Momoa is wonderfully cast as Arthur Curry, the half-human, half-Atlantean bastard destined to reclaim his rightful place as King of Atlantis. Yes, that sounds unabashedly Shakespearean; however, Momoa’s defining goofiness permits such a theme to work in a superhero blockbuster. As for the rest of the cast, Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman give a sufficient performance as Arthur’s separated parents. Although Amber Heard’s character, Mera, mainly exists as Aquaman’s love interest, she and Momoa have substantial chemistry together. Willem Dafoe provides a strong presence as Vulko, Curry’s childhood trainer who secretly aids him with ascending the throne; however, the character could have just as well been played by anybody else of a stoic caliber. As for Patrick Wilson’s Orm, the Ocean Master and brother of Curry, he is sufficiently threatening, but fails to differentiate himself from the same superficial villain that we’ve all seen before.
Aquaman’s main flaw is the addition of a subplot that takes up too much screen time and acts is a thinly-veiled sequel setup. Specifically, Yahya Abdul-Mateen’s Black Manta, a pirate with a heavy grudge against the Aquaman, distracts from the main themes of the film and should have instead been relegated to the inevitable sequel. Introduced at the beginning of the film, Black Manta’s motivations are muddy from the start. Although he is traditionally Aquaman’s arch-nemesis, his plot is constantly pushed to the sideline. The stakes down in Atlantis are so much higher that it’s constantly a chore to even remember that Manta exists. The screen time that he takes up could have been put to better use as a means to flesh out the Ocean Master’s character. That said, Black Manta does provide necessary action during the film’s middle act, which in itself is another problem.
During the middle of the film, Curry and Mera do a bit of location-hopping in their search for a legendary trident. This segment should be a highlight of the movie, given that the settings of the Sahara Desert and Sicily provide a much-needed break from the underwater world. However, it comes too late in the movie’s plot and is stretched out with chaotic action sequences featuring Black Manta, and is instead a slump that drags out Aquaman’s running time.
The fight sequences themselves are not for everyone and threaten to saturate the film with excessive tackiness. Although there is much inventiveness in the choreography of the action, specifically with Aquaman frequently using the environment around him to knock down his foes, the structure of the sequences are repetitive and too over-the-top to suspend disbelief. It’s laughably easy to predict when an explosion will occur (it’s usually during a lull in dialogue between main characters). Furthermore, after Aquaman defeats all of his enemies on the screen, whether they be Atlanteans or Black Manta’s recruits, a second wave of enemies appears out of nowhere, usually more powerful and wearing different-colored armor. Once these new adversaries are defeated, a “boss” appears, presenting himself in menacing slow motion against a backdrop of explosions. Ultimately, the fight scenes feel like a corny video game, and the repetitiveness is wearisome, leaving the audience dreading the next action scene to come.
Despite these critiques, it must be said that James Wan’s direction and Don Burgess’s cinematography pull some wonderful feats. Creating an underwater world on screen isn’t easy. Although there is a sometimes exhausting amount of CGI, per usual in a superhero film, Wan and Burgess use it well, mastering both the physics and the beauty of such a world. In addition, the transitions between scenes are visually pleasing. From zooming into a snow globe and transforming the scene into a real-life depiction to delving deep into the ocean and surprising us by leaving in a fish tank, the transitions were entertainingly executed.
Aquaman is a well-made and admirable action film, albeit a flawed one. What stands out most is Aquaman himself and the perspective and legacy that the filmmakers decided to assign him. For instance, it’s probably not a coincidence that “King Arthur” is destined to remove an omnipotent trident from a stone statue. Although the film’s script sometimes pushes this element too far, it’s not a major setback and ultimately helps us appreciate Aquaman as more than just a guy who talks to fish. Despite its flaws, this film leaves me wanting more and is a hopeful improvement in DC’s catalog against an unsure future.