Imagine if the first Thor movie (which my wife loves but I tend to find pretty mediocre) had featured its titular character traveling through all nine Asgardian realms — most of which Marvel Studios still hasn’t shown us over the course of three movies with the character — with no shortage of dialogue explaining each one in great detail. Then imagine that the movie, in addition to introducing Loki, also introduced three other prominent villains from the comics.
Now imagine if that same introductory film starred someone without the charm of Chris Hemsworth — and another lead actress just as wasted as Natalie Portman. Now extend the run time of our hypothetical Thor by about 30 minutes, and triple the budget. Don’t forget a voiceover narration that repeats the same information multiple times just so you know what you’re watching.
You’re almost approximating Aquaman.
Aquaman is an experience to be endured. It is also probably the best-case scenario for a movie about Aquaman and sort of comparable to 2011’s much-criticized bomb Green Lantern. I don’t think Aquaman will bomb the same way or even bomb at all. It’s being praised by many film critics, and the audience at our screening seemed to really enjoy it.
Like most of the DC movies this decade, it is audacious to the point of recklessness — with zero aesthetic or narrative self-control in its desperation to fit in everything it can from the source material. I know Aquaman fairly well from back issues and DC’s 2011 “New 52” relaunch, the latter of which forms the basis for most of this movie. I was not an expert walking in. I don’t feel like an expert walking out. I don’t feel much of anything walking out.
Jason Momoa stars as Arthur Curry, the Aquaman. He’s reprising a role he initiated back in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and continued in Justice League. Arthur is the son of Tom (Temuera Morrison), a lighthouse keeper, and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the deposed queen of Atlantis. He was secretly trained in combat during his youth by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Atlantis’s royal vizier. Arthur bums around the surface world while occasionally fighting pirates like Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and other seaborne riff-raff. Mostly he acts surly, which is Momoa’s comfort zone.
Until Mera (Amber Heard), the princess of one of the seven (!) undersea kingdoms, comes to the surface to recruit Arthur back to Atlantis and reclaim his royal birthright. His younger half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), aka “Ocean Master,” is starting an internecine conflict between the seven kingdoms in a hopes of uniting them as an army to fight against the surface-dwelling races of men.
Orm’s plan is super dumb and has no chance of succeeding, mostly because their armies consist of sharks and giant sea horses and all sorts of technology that makes them useless on land. Mera and Vulko want Arthur to depose Orm and become Atlantis’s king. To do so, he has to find the Trident of Atlan, a mystical object that will allow him to control all undersea life and become the true ruler of his kingdom.
That felt like a lot of synopsis. There’s just a lot of movie to Aquaman, but very little of it is particularly engaging. It’s dumb as hell and that’s fine. Aquaman is inherently dumb as hell. I like dumb shit. But there’s a special kind of vacuousness to the movie, and it wears out its welcome well before the halfway point of a nearly 150-minute running time.
Director James Wan often finds beautiful images to fill the screen from time to time, and the production design is tremendous, presenting an underwater kingdom that is simply gorgeous to look at. But his world never feels lived in. Fashions incorporate undersea life, including seaweed, and yet Mera seems confused by the concept of edible plants when she walks on land. It’s all surface in Wan’s under-the-sea dream.
Momoa simply doesn’t hit the mark as a leading man. He’s likable and can deliver one-liners with a smile, but it’s generally the same expression over and over again. He doesn’t track or engage emotionally. You lose interest fast. Aly mentioned that it was nice that Aquaman engages with the female gaze, and that’s true. But it’s not enough to carry the weight of the movie.
To its credit, Aquaman features a story about mothers and sons rather than yet another movie about sons trying to live up to their father’s expectations. An early action sequence featuring Atlanna fighting some assassins while Tom holds young Arthur, protected by his wife, is a nice change of pace from what we usually see in superhero cinema. But inasmuch as Aquaman has a story, it’s more or less the same take-back-the-throne plot of Thor or Black Panther but longer and more mind-numbing.
The first fight sequence is actually the high point for the movie’s action, as the rest of them go on for far too long and lack interesting choreography or blocking. It gave me flashbacks to Transformers: The Last Knight.
Aquaman also gave me flashbacks to the trilogy of Detective Dee historic action epics that have come out of China in recent years. Aquaman was incredibly similar to those: everything is overstated, grandiose, for lack of better word excessive. Exposition very simple and direct. Made to be translated into multiple languages with minimal difficulty. Watching the Dee series earlier this year introduced me to the way in which Hollywood has its own set of norms that govern action film behavior, particularly superheroes, and how different those “dance” sequences can be across the world. And how they’re nonetheless universally recognized and enjoyed. Aquaman has been a hit in China already, and it will likely be a hit here. It may well represent the future of Superhero cinema in a Global age better than Black Panther.
But for me personally, the most comparable Hollywood Christmastime blockbuster would be the three Hobbit movies, themselves underwhelming end products of long and fruitful pre-production processes that built amazing visual worlds without a story to inhabit them. Those Hobbit movies are fucking bores but they’re goddamn gorgeous, amazing to look at. Every year I consider giving them another shot, only to find myself once again disappointed. I may develop a similar relationship with Aquaman. God, why?
No doubt there are already long reviews being written about how Aquaman is a landmark of the genre, the moment where it goes “full comic-book,” where critics laud it for having zero qualms with fully embracing the mythology of its source material. Gonzo filmmaking or some shit. I’m sure the words “more interesting than cookie-cutter MCU stuff” have been written somewhere by someone. “Auteur genius” also somewhere, probably.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse came out a week ago and introduces a half-dozen Spider-man characters in a single movie. I don’t love that movie, but it’s a cool example of how these movies can leverage cultural familiarity with a character to tell a big story that captures that character’s essence. We love superheroes for a reason. I don’t think anyone making Aquaman was ever quite sure why they were making Aquaman. I walked into the movie hoping to know what they saw in him; I left it still not knowing. Maybe I’ll never know. Maybe we’ll never know.