Sometimes You Have to Stop and Eat the Flowers — A Spoiler-Filled Review of Aquaman

For people whose only exposure to Aquaman was the various SuperFriends cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s, seeing the character played by the guy who previously played Khal Drogo, Ronon Dex, and Conan the Barbarian probably seemed a trifle odd. Readers of the comics, however, have seen lots of different iterations of the King of the Seven Seas, including the long-haired, bearded, brooding, snarky version initially written by Peter David in the 1990s.

The new Jason Momoa Aquaman film owes quite a bit to that portrayal, as well as the Atlantis backstory that David established in the Atlantis Chronicles and Aquaman: Time and Tide miniseries and the followup ongoing series that was written by David, Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, Erik Larsen, and Dan Jurgens.

It’s a big dumb goof of a movie, and while no one’s likely to put it in their top ten of superhero movies, it’s actually fun, an adjective that has rarely applied to DC’s theatrical efforts in this century.

SPOILERS FOR AQUAMAN IN THIS HERE REVIEW!

Aquaman picks up awkwardly from the character’s appearance in Justice League. There’s a token mention of the battle against Steppenwolf, and Mera’s recruitment of Arthur Curry for that fight, but it feels oddly tacked-on, like the scripters felt it needed to be included because this is part of a cinematic universe. But that’s also the extent of the acknowledgment that there’s any other movie—no mention of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, or Cyborg (not even when Curry’s half-brother King Orm sends tidal waves of trash onto the coasts of the world, which you’d think that at least one of the other heroes would respond to). This movie is designed to stand completely on its own.

And it does so on the back of its incredibly simplistic plot, which is pretty much a video game or role-playing game story: Our heroes go from place to place to place, having a fight here, having to solve a puzzle there, learning bits and pieces of backstory as they go along, and finally arriving at the desired goal in order to obtain the quest item and save the day in the end. (There was one point where the incidental music—which was all over the place—sounded suspiciously like an eight-bit videogame soundtrack.)

As expected, given his scene-stealing performance in Justice League (not to mention, y’know, his entire oeuvre), Momoa makes the movie. His relaxed charm, his obnoxiousness, his snide earnestness all keep things moving nicely. But more to the point, we never lose sight of the fact that he’s a hero.

There are few things in superhero films I have less patience with than the reluctant hero. On the one hand, yes, it gives your protagonist a journey to go on. But when you’re doing a superhero movie, the reluctant-hero trope is just tiresome, because—especially when it’s an adaptation of a character whose creation predates the attack on Pearl Harbor—we know the outcome. Aquaman rather sensibly avoids this, instead giving Curry a different journey to go on. Instead of a reluctant hero, he’s a reluctant king. Throughout the movie he resists the notion of claiming his birthright as King of Atlantis, only claiming it at the end because the alternative is his dickish half-brother.

Orm is an unsubtly evil bastard from jump, which makes it easy to root for Curry to beat him, but also makes it hard to work up much enthusiasm for any scene he’s in. This is exacerbated by a one-dimensional performance from Patrick Wilson, who spends the entire movie being out-acted by everyone around him. One expects that from the likes of Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe, but when Dolph Lundgren and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II are also acting you off the screen, you’ve got problems.

(This is the only thing I’ve seen Abdul-Mateen in, but he’s just awful as Black Manta. He’s introduced alongside Michael Beach playing his father, and Beach is a billion times the actor as the guy playing his son. Manta’s quest for vengeance against Aquaman for the death of Beach’s father character has absolutely no bite to it because Abdul-Mateen plays him so broadly and boringly. They’d have been better off casting Beach as Manta…)

It’s a good thing Momoa’s there, anyhow, because without him, this movie would be a disaster. While the overall plot follows decently enough, the details and order of events range from problematic to nonsensical. I’d been hoping that the casting of Momoa would also mean a diverse cast of Atlanteans. No such luck: All the full-blooded Atlanteans we meet who still have human form are all white folks. (Curry being a POC derives from his father, played with impressive dignity and an even more relaxed charm by Temuera Morrison.) Now you can make an argument that living underwater all this time would result in a lot of pale people—but in a flashback to thousands of years ago, when Atlantis was above the sea, and had technology greater than that of any other humans on Earth, they were still all white folks.

At least they have an excuse for why Curry has to be the one to take over from Orm, since only the “one true king” can rule. Queens need not apply, even though both Heard’s Mera and Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna (Curry’s mother) are about eight billion times more qualified to lead than any of the men around them, with the possible exception of Dafoe’s Vulko. But the patriarchy will out, it seems. Mera, however, is far more capable and intelligent than Curry, but she’s stuck helping him instead of just doing it herself. (Ditto Atlanna, who’s trapped on an island because she can’t get to the Magic Trident Of Destiny because she’s just a girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrl.) Mera’s more calculating, too. When she kisses Curry right before the big fight at the end, I got no kind of romantic vibe from it—nor were we supposed to. That was a princess who was trying to a) motivate Curry to do what he had to do against Orm and b) show interest in the hopes that he would take her as his wife so she could be queen and actually run things better than the big doofus.

It would’ve been nice if some of that subtext with Mera had actually been text. As it stands, we don’t get nearly enough of an understanding of why she’s pushing so hard to get Curry to claim the throne. She states that she wants to avoid a war with the surface, and she’s willing to throw away her entire life and status to do it. But we don’t get any sense of why it’s so important to her when she doesn’t even know or like the surface world—heck, she thinks flowers are something you eat. (Not an unreasonable assumption after watching people eat fruit. And it’s a hilarious, adorable moment.) Heard does the best she can, but her character comes across far more often as a plot catalyst than a character. Having said that, she’s not just a guide—her water-manipulation powers enable her to be a true aid to Curry in his fights. She and Dafoe do a good job of showing how both Mera and Vulko are playing Orm while surreptitiously helping Curry.

Speaking of Vulko, one of the many nonsensical moments in the plot is when Orm reveals that he knew of Vulko’s betrayal all along. Yet he waits until the movie’s almost over to put him in prison? This is his closest advisor—why is he waiting until this point to arrest him for lying and helping the guy who wants to take the throne away from him? It’s meant to show that Orm isn’t a complete idiot—I guess—but it fails utterly at that.

Lundgren’s King Nereus is much more nuanced and interesting. He knows that Orm set up the “surface attack” on Atlantis—a submarine that Black Manta stole at the top of the film on Orm’s behalf in order to manufacture a conflict with the surface—but he has his own reasons. When Mera confronts her father Nereus with the revelation that the attack was fake, Lundgren plays it beautifully, as we realize that he has an agenda of his own. That one scene manages to make Nereus a more complex antagonist than all the snarling Wilson does for two hours.

The visuals are quite impressive. The undersea world is beautifully filmed and realized, director James Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess doing a superb job of creating a lush deep-sea environment. The movie is worth seeing just to see the varied underwater locales, which makes great use of the magnificence of the ocean depths to good effect.

On top of that, the surface work is good, too. The lighthouse where Curry grows up is a simple, rustic, homey location (and I love the use of the long dock that Curry’s father walks out on every morning hoping for Atlanna’s return). The Sicilian town where Curry and Mera find the location of the trident, and also where they fight Manta, is lovely. (Having said that, my wife and I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in Italy, and seeing a town very much like the places we visited getting trashed by a superhero battle hurt my heart. Especially when Mera trashed the wine cellar…)

I also love the fact that Curry’s telepathic “speaking” to ocean life is represented by concentric circles, just like in the old SuperFriends cartoon! That was a callback I was not expecting. And in the end, Curry winds up in Aquaman’s signature orange and green, and it mostly doesn’t look doofy! (Mostly…)

This is not a great movie—it is in many ways a really dumb movie, but it’s saved by some strong performances. I didn’t even mention Nicole Kidman, in the rather thankless role of Atlanna—pretty much the same role that Michelle Pfeiffer played in Ant-Man & The Wasp, and is mothers trapped in other realms for twenty years really going to become a trope now?—who kicks some serious butt and pretty much saves the day in the end, as it’s her presence, rather than any fighting, that ends the conflict between Orm and Curry.

DC’s filmic landscape is littered with leaden, colorless crap, with now two glowing exceptions, the other being Wonder Woman, though Aquaman can’t hold a candle to the Gal Gadot film. Still, it’s nice to see another DC film that embraces fun and joy and heroism, as Curry’s goal throughout is to save people. That’s what it’s supposed to be about, after all.

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s weekly rewatch of live-action superhero movies based on comic books, “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch,” appears every Friday on this here site. In addition to writing regularly for Tor.com, he also reviews TV shows and movies on Patreon, and writes a metric crapton of fiction as well, with three new novels coming out in 2019: the fantasy police procedural Mermaid Precinct, the urban fantasy A Furnace Sealed, and the Alien novel Isolation.

 

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