Aquaman and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by James Wan
Well I guess this is one way to put 2018 to a close. It’s been over a year since the last DCCU film stumbled into theaters and failed to make back the ludicrous amount of money put into it, but since Warner Bros hasn’t given up just yet on turning their superheroes into box office gold (it worked for Wonder Woman at least!), we’re getting at least one more stab at making this initial run of movies work before moving onto what MIGHT be an entirely new continuity with Shazam next year along with another Wonder Woman movie. With nothing left in the tank and one more Hail Mary left to go, can Warner Bros and DC knock it out of the park as the year is coming to a close? Let’s find out!!
Following the events of Justice League, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is just chilling with his dad (Temuera Morrison) and saving the occasional submarine from pirates. After a recent successful venture that left one particular pirate named David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) rather ticked off with our sub-nautical super hero, Arthur figured he’d just hang out at the bar for a bit before passing out somewhere. Sadly rest and booze is not in the cards at the moment as a fellow mer-person named Mera (Amber Heard) who we saw briefly in Justice League shows up to Warn Arthur that war is brewing and he’s the only one who can stop it. To explain this, we’ll need to do a bit of a FLASHBACK to the mid-eighties where his father Thomas and his mother first met. His mother JUST SO HAPPENED to be the runaway princess Atlanna of the Kingdom of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and fell in love with Thomas which eventually led to Arthur being born. However, after an attack from Atlantian soliders, Atlanna decides to go back to protect Arthur and become the bride of some dude who gets her pregnant and then chucks her into some dark hole in the sea after their son is born. Said son Orm (Patrick Wilson) is the current king of Atlantis and is consolidating power with the other mer-people tribes including the one that Mera belongs to which is ruled by her father Nereus (Dolph Lundgren). Did you get all that? Good, well Orm’s plan is to take over Surface World with an army of mer-people, but since Arthur is part of Atlantian Royalty by birthright, he can challenge Orm to the throne and turn around his expansionist policies before Surface World has to start nuking the ocean. Okay, so if Arthur wants to save the world (which he’s not too keen on but begrudgingly accepts) he has to stage a coup of some sort and convince the Atlantians of his right to rule. How the heck is he gonna do that!? Well, that’s where this other guy Nuidis (Willem Dafoe) comes in as he’s Orm’s head Vizier but has secretly been training Arthur this whole time and has a plan for him. Okay, MORE backstory. To sum it up, the first Atlantian King had a super powerful trident and if Arthur can find it, then his claim to rule will be that much more legitimate. Find the trident, avoid Orm’s army, and steer clear of that David guy who has a serious grudge now and may even have access to Atlantian technology to boot. Sounds reasonable enough, especially with Mera helping him out the whole time! Can Arthur solve the mysteries of his people’s past and find the one thing that will make him the ruler he was born to be? Even if he does find it, can he truly be a leader to these people given that he’s of both Surface World AND Water World lineage? Will he say MY MAN at least once in the movie!? Just once! It’s all I ask!!
Congratulations, DC! After stumbling into something great with Wonder Woman and barely managing to be about as good as a non-Marvel superhero movie, you have finally reached your goal of being an off-brand Marvel! The Dr. Thunder to Dr. Pepper! The Mountain Lion to Mountain Dew! It only took five years to get where Marvel was… well, five years ago! Am I poking too much fun here? Perhaps, but if this is the baseline from which we can expect all DC movies to be at going forward then I need to get my mockery out now because soon enough there won’t be that much to even make fun of because this is, while not THAT impressive when compared to its peers, a darn good adventure film and I’ll say that I liked it even more than Infinity War. It’s certainly a start and I hope that the DC films going forward are more like THIS than what they’ve tried in the past, but even so it still feels very standard for the genre and doesn’t distinguish itself from Marvel in any significant way (down to hiring a prominent female actor to wear a white wig while surviving in an inhuman and hostile environment) but they’ll be time for to figure out what they want to be once they nail down how to not be terrible to mediocre at best.
Really the strength of this movie is in its story. Not necessarily its characters or even the PLOT per se as they’re both kind of standard Super Hero Fare (tough guy who’s insecure matched up with a no nonsense female partner, war between supers and not supers, etc), but the film is more of an adventure film than I would have expected. It’s not about beating waves of enemies over and over again, though Arthur and Mera can hold their own in a fight. As his name implies (and as the movie outright says at one point), this is about the journey of a boy of great potential turning himself into a king among men… or merpeople or whatever, and it involves a series of trials in order to PROVE HIS WORTH and get the MAGICAL ITEM OF ULTIMATE DESTINY. I mean sure, I like a good punch up as much as the next person, but with a lot of these superhero movies (and Justice League in particular), it can get boring if the fighting is the means to an end instead of the connecting pieces between more interesting ideas. He’s not just traveling the globe trying to solve an ancient mystery like Indiana Jones; he’s on a journey of self-discovery where he’s not proving his worth through how many people he can beat to death with his mighty fists, rather he’s got to be the kind of person who’s worthy of inheriting the throne. It’s not THAT far outside the realm of the genre (the first Thor movie was basically that), but I appreciate the variety here so that every intense moment isn’t strictly about action.
Said action by the way is probably the least engaging part of the movie which is also why I’m happy they brought it down a notch here. The underwater scenes do look better than I anticipated (not as murky as those kind of scenes usually are), but the undersea combat always looked kind of meh and the scenes with the vehicles just looked like lesser versions of what we saw in Thor: Ragnarok. Aside from the FINAL TEST which was a pretty great scene and DIDN’T rely on his combat skills, I always preferred the action when it was above water rather than below it with the scene in Italy being a particular highlight; not just because it’s well shot, brightly lit, and involves both Arthur and Mera smashing all sorts of faces, but it’s also the big standout scene for Black Manta who has a rather compelling backstory to him that manages to still kind of stick with him despite the jaw-dropping silly outfit he ends up wearing. I mean look, I’m ALL for silly costumes in movies, but that head is so big I don’t know how he can get through doorways; let alone move effectively in a fight! Even with that, the scene is still the a highest point the film has as far as action and it’s pretty much all downhill from there; ESPECIALLY that big battle at the end where I just completely checked out. I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t care about either side in the fight (it’s almost like watching an abridged version of The Battle of the Five Armies only without as much of Bilbo and his dwarf buddies), and while Aquaman’s big debut as such is pretty cool, it just wasn’t enough to keep me from losing interest almost immediately and just waiting for the conflict to settle down so we can get to the happy ending.
To bring this back to a more positive note, I did enjoy the performances across the board and was even surprised by at least one person who showed up here. I sat through this entire movie thinking that they got some Liam Neeson knockoff to play King Nereus, but that was actually Dolph Lundgren! AND HE WAS GOOD! I mean I guess that’s not a surprise to anyone who’s actually SEEN his movies, but he rarely shows up in blockbusters like this, and when he does it’s usually just to reference his earlier work rather than give a new and compelling performance. Aside from that though, I think everyone did an admirable job here with Jason Momoa and Amber Heard getting particularly high marks from me. The former because he’s pretty great in this despite his output until now being… let’s say not PARTICULARLY charismatic roles, and Amber Heard manages to stand out despite having a role that almost always feels like a second fiddle position in other blockbusters. She’s great here and could have easily carried a movie on her own, but I appreciate that she’s taking the time out to drag Momoa through the best performance of his career as far as I’m concerned. If there was anyone I wasn’t particularly impressed by it was Patrick Wilson who’s FINE in the role, but that’s about all I can say. He’s not a particularly compelling villain which is due pretty much entirely to a script that barely has any use for him other than to be a punching bag for our hero. We know that he’s not going to do anything SIGNIFICANT and is basically waiting around for Arthur to get his Magic MacGuffin of Ultimate Destiny to beat the crap out of him with. He doesn’t have the charisma or the wicked charm of Loki, and he lacks the menace of someone like Thanos who you can BELIEVE is a threat worth taking seriously. He’s just kind of a joke and the movie doesn’t even have a good send off for him. He just… goes away, presumably to be forgotten about or get a minor redemptive arc before dying in the sequel. Thankfully the OTHER villain of the film, Black Manta, has a degree of menace to him despite his silly helmet and Warner Bros clearly has plans for him going forward.
I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for a few these films. I’ve even had nice things to say about Suicide Squad and Justice League! That said, the bar has been set rather low and hopefully this film being as solid as it is will raise things up for every other part of the DCCU that isn’t about Wonder Woman. I’m still not sure if Shazam is gonna be the big turning point they seem to want it to be (something of a clean break from the Cavill era of the franchise), but even if that doesn’t work out they’ve got a solid safety net with the aforementioned Wonder Woman and now this series which proved itself more than capable of being an entertaining time at the movies. I’d recommend seeing it if you’ve got the time, but then again there’s a lot of great stuff at the theaters right now (you’ve seen Spider-Verse by now, right!?), so this one can be shunted down the priority list a bit, but it is big and pretty looking so it’ll be worth checking out on a nice big screen at some point. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and say that DC HAS FINALLY CAUGHT UP TO THE MCU, but we’re one step closer at least. A step that took almost five years to take, but it’s a start!