4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I came to save my home” — Aquaman

Aquaman first appeared in More Fun Comics #73, published in 1941, and he continued to appear in that comic until 1946, when he was shifted to Adventure Comics. He’s one of the few superheroes who continued to have his adventures published regularly through the 1950s, when the popularity of superhero comics was waning.

He was also the butt of jokes for a long time after his run in the animated Super Friends series where he came across as the weak link of the team. Then he was rebooted in the 1980s by Robert Loren Fleming and in the 1990s by Peter David as a force to be reckoned with. Thirty years ago, casting someone who looks and acts like Jason Momoa as Aquaman would have been laughed out of the room, but in the 2010s, it made sense.

Aquaman has never been one of the major players in the DC universe, but he’s been a fairly consistent supporting presence. He worked with the All-Star Squadron during World War II and was a founding member of the Justice League of America in 1960, remaining a major part of the team for much of its history.

Most notably, Aquaman was the leader of an incarnation of the Justice League that was very radical for its time in the 1980s, as Aquaman rewrote the bylaws so that team members had to be 100% dedicated to the team, and then joining with the Martian Manhunter to assemble a team of newcomers and untested heroes to form the League’s membership. The team also relocated to Detroit.

Even though the character’s no more or less ridiculous than any other superhero—hell, he’s practically the same superhero as the Marvel’s Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner (created two years earlier in Marvel Comics #1)—he became DC’s punchline superhero for a long time.

Fleming, David, and later Erik Larsen and Geoff Johns all worked to change that, leaning into Aquaman’s role as both a ruler of a kingdom and the fact that being able to communicate with fish can be a pretty impressive power in the hands of a writer who actually thought about it for two seconds. (One of the greatest Aquaman moments was early in his mid-1990s solo comic book, written by David. He faces Superboy, one of the “substitute” Supermen who appeared in the wake of Superman’s temporary death in 1992, and one who, along with Steel, continued to have a heroic career after Supes’ resurrection. Early on, Superboy makes a derogatory comment about Aquaman and how he’s just the guy who talks to fish. “I’m not impressed,” the young hero opines. Several pages later, a big tidal wave is heading toward Hawai’i, led by Aquaman riding a blue whale, accompanied by two more blue whales, and Aquaman shouts toward the shore, “Hey! Kid! You impressed yet?”)

After a cameo in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Jason Momoa—having made a name for himself in genre circles as Ronon Dex on Stargate Atlantis and Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones (not to mention playing the title role in 2011’s Conan the Barbarian)—made his first full-on appearance as Aquaman in Justice League. While an Aquaman film had been in development since the early days of the millennium, it didn’t really take hold until Warner Bros. started putting together the DC Extended Universe following 2013’s Man of Steel. Aquaman was always intended to be part of that.

Will Beall and Kurt Johnstad were both hired to write scripts and Warner intended to take only one. James Wan of Saw, The Conjuring, and Furious 7 fame, was hired to direct, using Beall’s draft which was rewritten by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.

Back from Justice League along with Momoa is Amber Heard as Mera, who tasked Aquaman with fighting Steppenwolf in that film. They’re joined by Willem Dafoe (last seen in this rewatch in the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films) as Vulko (who had a part written and filmed for Justice League, but it was cut), Patrick Wilson (last seen in this rewatch as Nite Owl in Watchmen) as King Orm, Dolph Lundgren (last seen in this rewatch as the title character in 1989’s The Punisher) as Nereus, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as David Kane (who becomes Black Manta over the course of the film), Michael Beach as Jesse Kane, Nicole Kidman (last seen in this rewatch as Chase Meridian in Batman Forever) as Atlanna, Temuera Morrison (previously seen in this rewatch in Green Lantern and Barb Wire) as Thomas Curry, and Djimon Honsou (previously seen in this rewatch in Constantine and Guardians of the Galaxy), Natalia Safran, and Sophia Forrest as the royal family of the Fishermen. In addition, the vocal talents of greats Julie Andrews and John Rhys-Davies (last seen in this rewatch as the Kingpin in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk) are utilized to voice Karathen and the Brine King, respectively.

The film grossed over a billion dollars, and a sequel is currently on Warner’s schedule for December 2022. Wan is being courted to come back and direct, and Momoa is already signed for it, as is Johnson-McGoldrick to write it.

 

“I’ve done nothing but get my ass kicked this whole trip…”

Aquaman
Written by Geoff Johns & James Wan and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall
Directed by James Wan
Produced by Peter Safran and Rob Cowan
Original release date: December 21, 2018

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

In Maine in 1985, Thomas Curry, a lighthouse keeper, takes in a woman he finds washed up on the rocks during a storm. She turns out to be Atlanna, a native of Atlantis. They fall in love, and have a child, but eventually the forces of Atlantis show up at the lighthouse to take her home. While Atlanna kicks their asses, she knows that they’ll be back eventually, so she goes home to marry the king as she is supposed to.

Their son, Arthur, is raised by Thomas, but is sometimes visited by Nudlis Vulko, the Vizier of Atlantis, who trains him in how to use his Atlantean abilities: strength, night vision, and more. Plus, he can also communicate with aquatic life, which is unique even among Atlanteans. Vulko keeps promising to let Arthur see his mother, but eventually he’s forced to admit that his mother is gone, sacrificed when it was revealed that she’d had a half-breed son.

In the present day, a Russian sub is boarded by a mercenary team led by the father-son duo of Jesse and David Kane. Arthur shows up to rescue the surviving crew (the Kanes massacred most of them). The Kanes fight Arthur, and Jesse is trapped under a metal beam. Arthur leaves them, refusing to save people who murdered innocents. David manages to escape and swears revenge on Arthur.

Every morning, Thomas goes out to the dock where Atlanna promised to some day return. After rescuing the sub, Arthur shows up at the dock and he and Thomas go out for a morning beer. Some goons approach Arthur, but they’re not looking for a fight, they want selfies with the famous Aquaman.

King Orm—Atlanna’s son by the king of Atlantis—meets with King Nereus of Xebel. His intent is to unite what’s left of the seven kingdoms and become Ocean Master and then declare war on the surface, who have polluted their home for too long. As if to prove the point, the Russian sub from earlier attacks them. (We soon learn that Orm hired the Kanes to capture the sub for him to use as an attack to “prove” the mendacity of the surface dwellers.)

Mera, who is the daughter of Nereus, wants Arthur to challenge Orm for the throne of Atlantis. Arthur has no desire to be king—he only went after Steppenwolf to save the world, not to save Atlantis—and he says that if Orm attacks the surface, Arthur will fight him then.

And then Orm sends a massive tidal wave onto the coasts of the world dumping garbage and warships onto the shores. Said tidal wave nearly kills the Currys, but Mera’s water-manipulation abilities saves them. Arthur thanks her, and agrees that Orm needs to be stopped.

They head to Atlantis in Mera’s ship. She’s allowed access to the city because she has diplomatic standing as Nereus’s daughter—and, we later learn, as Orm’s betrothed. They meet with Vulko, who explains that the one true king of Atlantis can retrieve the trident of King Atlan. They unearthed a recording device that should tell them where to search for the trident, but it’s old tech and they don’t have the means of reading it.

Before they can form a plan, they’re attacked by Orm’s forces. Vulko and Mera hide so that the bad guys only see Arthur, and he’s captured and brought before Orm. Arthur challenges Orm for the Atlantean throne, and their trial by combat goes very badly for Arthur, with Orm shattering Arthur’s trident (the same one he used in Justice League and, we learn, was Atlanna’s, which she left behind at the lighthouse).

Mera interferes in the fight before Orm can kill Arthur, and the two escape in her ship, then dump the ship in the lava hoping it will fool Orm into thinking them dead. Arthur tells a whale to hide them, and they pull a Pinocchio and go in the whale’s mouth.

One of the seven kingdoms was where the Sahara Desert is now. They have the old tech that can read the recording. Arthur hires a plane to take them there, and Mera jumps out of the plane when they’re over the right spot. They eventually find it, and the recording gives them clues where to find the location of the trident: a map of Sicily and a bottle that, in the hands of a true king, will reveal the location.

They head to Sicily. However, Orm knows that Mera at least is still alive because he put a tracker on her (the bracelet that sealed their engagement). Nereus insists that his daughter be brought back alive, and Orm agrees to that, then turns around and hires Kane again, this time giving him Atlantean tech and telling him and a team of Orm’s soldiers to kill Arthur and Mera both.

Orm asks the Fishermen to join them, but the philosophical mer-people refuse. So Orm kills the king and his guards and forces the young princess to join his alliance.

Arthur and Mera figure out that the bottle—which has coordinate indicators in the bottom that you can see when you stare down the neck—needs to be put in the right spot to find the trident. There are a bunch of statues in the town of figures from the Roman Empire, but the only king is Romulus. When Arthur puts the bottle in Romulus’s hands, they have their location.

Then Kane attacks. His weapons can actually hurt Arthur now. They fight all over town, doing significant damage to this beautiful old Italian village, but our heroes are eventually triumphant. Mera destroys the bracelet and then steals a boat (not deliberately—she assumed the boats in the marina were for general use), which they head out to the coordinates on.

When there, they’re attacked by the amphibious Trench creatures, the nastiest of the surviving seven kingdoms. They manage to hold them off using flares—the Trench are creatures of the deep, and so are sensitive to bright light—and swim downward, finding a vortex that leads them to the center of the Earth. They’re separated, and Mera is attacked by a sea creature—but then saved by Atlanna!

She was sacrificed to the Trench, but she managed to survive in this place at the Earth’s core—but she can’t get in to where the trident is because she has a uterus, and only the one true king can enter. After a joyous reunion with Arthur, the latter goes in to claim the trident.

It’s guarded by a leviathan, but Arthur can actually communicate with her—the first supplicant to try to claim the trident who actually had a conversation with her. She allows him to take the trident.

Orm’s forces attack the last of the surviving seven kingdoms, the Brine, to suborn them and make himself Ocean Master, so he can attack the surface with all the kingdoms united behind him. (Well, except the Trench.) The Brine King defies him, and then Arthur shows up with the leviathan and a ton of other sea life on his side. He also is able to turn Orm’s mounts (sharks, mostly) against them.

At Mera’s urging, Arthur leads Orm to the surface where they fight again. This time Arthur shatters Orm’s trident. Arthur refuses to kill Orm, and then Atlanna shows up, and Orm breaks down at the sight of his mother alive.

Arthur is now king, and Orm is imprisoned. Atlanna returns to Maine and greets Thomas at the end of the dock like she promised.

 

“Redheads—you gotta love ’em!”

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

 

When this movie came out, I reviewed it here on Tor.com, and my general opinion of it hasn’t changed significantly: the film is very much like its star, a big dumb goof of a movie.

On this rewatch there was one thing I appreciated even more, which is James Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess’s superlative work showing us the lush world under the sea. I was married for eight years to a scuba diver and underwater photographer (since our divorce, she’s gotten her doctorate in oceanography), and so I got lots of good looks at the world underwater through her photographs and those of her colleagues and friends, and I was consistently blown away.

It is to Wan and Burgess’s credit that they so beautifully capture so many different facets of undersea life, from the peaceful to the beautiful to the turbulent to the dark and scary. The movie is a visual feast, and the transfer to the smaller screen does nothing to mute that. It’s a beautiful, glorious film to look at.

Unfortunately, rewatching the film does the rest of the movie—the plot, the acting, the script, the music—no favors, as they were all harder to take this time than they were the first time five months ago.

The music is a total mess, going from one extreme to the other, even doing music that sounds like an 8-bit videogame while Mera is being chased across the rooftops of the Sicilian town (because the whole thing wasn’t enough like Super Mario Brothers already?). Coming right after Justice League with its multiple callbacks and great use of covers of classic songs, this is a major disappointment.

The DCEU has had precisely one good villain so far—Michael Shannon’s Zod in Man of Steel. (Caveat: I have not, as of this writing, seen Shazam! yet.) This film continues the streak of awful started by Jesse Eisenberg and Robin Atkin Downes in Dawn of Justice, and continued with David Thewlis and Danny Huston in Wonder Woman and Ciarán Hinds in Justice League.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

Patrick Wilson is simply dreadful, snarling his way through the spectacularly uninteresting part of Orm, who pretty much follows every cliché of the evil monarch with nothing to mitigate it or make him in any way, shape, or form interesting. He’s not even charismatically evil, he’s just a snot. Wilson can be an effective bad guy—his dudebro CIA agent in The A-Team was fantastic—but he brings nothing but a blank stare to the role of Orm.

Dolph Lundgren is actually nuanced as Nereus, but we only get hints of his greater plan. I like that we discover that he knew Orm was manipulating things, but he had his own agenda—which we never actually learn. As with “Dr. Poison” in Wonder Woman, this movie would’ve been far better off focusing on Nereus than Orm or Black Manta.

Speaking of Black Manta, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is even worse than Wilson, as his attempt at vengeful anger feels more like a teenager who’s just been told he’s been grounded. This is made worse by putting him next to Michael Beach in his first scene. Beach is a great actor, and he brings depth and nuance to the role of Jesse Kane, and you kinda wish it had been the son who died and Dad who became Black Manta. If nothing else, that would’ve made the mid-credits scene actually effective. As it is, this movie was about fighting for the crown of an undersea kingdom in order to save the surface from an invasion by a technologically superior force, and the mid-credits scene promises that Aquaman’s next foe will be—erm, the doofus he already defeated twice in this movie and a crazed conspiracy theorist? Really? Bit of a comedown, that…

The character of conspiracy theorist Dr. Shin, played by Randall Park, is just weird. I mean, this is a world that’s already been invaded by Kryptonians and Steppenwolf, and Aquaman’s pretty famous at this point, so why are people having trouble believing Shin that Atlantis exists? And now that Aquaman’s king of Atlantis, they’re probably going to be more public anyhow. It’s just a weird inclusion that feels out of place, like the movie’s pretending the other DCEU films didn’t happen (beyond the token Steppenwolf mention). Which shows up elsewhere by not a single hero reacting to Orm’s dumping of trash all over the coasts of the world. Couldn’t we at least have seen Flash speed-cleaning a beach or something?

The plot is right out of a quest video game or a role-playing game: our heroes go from place to place and either get clues or have random encounters, eventually working their way to the quest item in order to save the day. When Mera and Arthur are on the boat, you can practically hear the DM say “roll for surprise” before the Trench creatures show up.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

My biggest problem with the film upon rewatching it though is something I touched on in my review, and which is even more annoying now. There are two very capable women in this movie, who are two of the three smartest, bravest, most competent characters in the film (the third being Vulko). Yet Mera has to drag Arthur along in order to claim the throne, and Atlanna is stuck in the center of the Earth for thirty years, because they’re just girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrls and only the One True Penis can lead the seven seas. Sigh.

(I also repeat my question from that December review: are mothers trapped in another realm for decades being played by female leads in 1990s Batman films gonna be a trope now? First Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet van Dyne in Ant-Man & The Wasp, and now Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna here.)

The saving graces of this movie are the visuals, as I mentioned before, and Momoa. His relaxed charm, his yeah-whatever attitude, his snarkiness, all make the movie watchable, plus the movie never loses sight of his heroism. The one time he isn’t heroic—when he declines to save Jesse’s life—it comes back to haunt him, and to his credit, he realizes it. But overall, he’s in this to save people, not to be a leader, even if he does have the crown thrust upon him in the end. I also love the fact that he doesn’t always go along with the entire chosen-one plan. When Mera dings him for challenging Orm before they’ve found Atlan’s trident, he just shrugs and says, “Shit happens.”

Still, at the very least, this movie is fun, an adjective that rarely applies to DCEU films.

 

For the next few weeks, we’ll be going pulp-ish, starting next week with the four 1940s Dick Tracy films.

Keith R.A. DeCandido has thoughts on Avengers: Endgame, but you have to subscribe to his Patreon to read them (though it’s only $1/month to read the movie reviews). Or, of course, you can just wait until this rewatch hits that movie in October. Keith’s next two novels will be out in June and July: Mermaid Precinct, the latest in his fantasy police procedural series; and Alien: Isolation, based on both the movie series and the hit 2014 videogame.

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