“Aquaman” is a mess. It isn’t a bad film, but it isn’t especially good. I’d put it around the same place as “Suicide Squad” in that a lot of the writing and performances are what bring down so much potential in what could be an amazing story. This could have been “Wonder Woman” if the acting and writing had been up to that quality, sadly it is not. I still enjoyed a lot of things about this film, just as I did with “Suicide Squad” though. This film is beautiful, the experienced actors are fantastic and it made me want to read the comics and learn more about the characters. This world is amazing, even if the execution is extremely flawed.
The film was directed by James Wan who wrote it along with Geoff Johns and Will Beall.
The story follows Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa) who is called back home when his half-brother is attempting to unite the Underwater Kingdoms to destroy humanity above. Arthur must find the mythical Trident of Atlan to unite the Ocean as his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) sends the pirate David Kane / Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) after him and Mera (Amber Heard) to prevent them from challenging his rule.
The Universe and Ocean Politics – I want to read the comics after watching this film. There are 7 Nations based off the 7 seas who are sunk down to the ocean due their hubris and each Kingdom evolved into a different kind of fish person. Atlantis is the largest of the Kingdoms and King Orm wants revenge on the surface dwellers for pollution and destruction of the ocean, so is going about uniting the Kingdoms by paying off a mercenary pirate (Black Manta) to do so to make the other distrust humanity. When his betrothed Mera (from another Kingdom) brings his half-brother Arthur / Aquaman down to challenge him, they fight and Orm wins! After this he goes full on expansionist and begins uniting or destroying the remaining Sea Kingdom (3 are lost before the film begins) and seeing it all unfold…it is a great backstory and I wanted to know more. This world is more interesting than most of the characters driving the action. The 7 Kingdoms fascinate me and there is such a rich amount of lore in this movie.
The Cinematography and Action – This movie has some of the most beautiful action in any DC film. You have giant sharks and ships with lazers fighting on the deep ocean floor. You have monsters rising from the depths and even a chase in Sicily that manages to hold a good amount of tension for Mera and Arthur as they escape from Black Manta and his mercenaries. The color pallet is as vibrant as the fish in the sea and the action is up there with “Tron” in how that color is used to illustrate underwater action. The big final battle was especially compelling and kept me entranced the entire time. It was also the only time I like Arthur Curry as a character.
Queen Atlanna – Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mother Queen Atlanna. We could have got a whole movie just about her as she drives the initial action escaping to the surface world to escape from an arranged marriage. It is there she falls in love with a Lighthouse Keeper who rescues her and they have a happy life until Atlanteans find her again and attempt to bring her back for judgement. After this she is presumed dead since she is left to face judgement in the Trench (after she returns back to the sea to protect her husband and Arthur) where most are sent to die. She survives, but after that is just there as support for Arthur. I loved her agency early on in the film and wanted to know more about her backstory. Kidman gives so much to this part and really deserved more.
King Nereus -Dolph Lundgren is an underrated actor if this film is anything to go by. I know he was in “Masters of the Universe” and now 2 films in the Rocky Franchise as Ivan but I never realized how charismatic he was. Here he plays Mera’s father and one of the Kings of the 7 Sea Kingdoms. He is manipulated into joining Orm when humans attack them and stands by Orm until Mera finally calls out how evil he is for standing by Orm’s destruction of others in order to rule. He was compelling that way and the most political of all the Kings, as the others were isolationist (the Crab People) or Philosophers (the fish people). His people were most like the Atlanteans and he was good as a somewhat antagonist. His love for his daughter trumped his hatred of the humans though.
Karathen – Julie Andrews plays this giant Ocean Monster at the bottom of the sea. She is so cool. It is small part as she protects the legendary Trident Atlan that Arthur needs to be King, but once he has it she joins him in the battle against Orm. She is amazing and her reveal is a sight to behold. The fact that getting to her involves fighting a bunch of feral fish men adds more tension to how quiet her lair is and the threat against Arthur as he could easily fail to retrieve the Trident like so many before him.
Nuidis Vulko – Dafoe plays the adviser to the King and was the one who helped Arthur develop his powers when he was a child. He supports Orm up to a point, even though he always wanted Arthur to return. We don’t get much on his motivation but it is Willem Dafoe and he adds layers to a sadly very underwritten character. He serves the realm like Varys and in doing so will serve even the most selfish and cruel of kings until there is one who is better.
Mera – I want to see more of Amber Heard’s films. She is the only main character with any level of charisma and acting range and I loved her fish out of water situations. She is first introduced to humans when she escapes with Arthur and seeing her interact with the surface world is charming. She also can take care of herself and saves Arthur on multiple occasions, and manages to hold her own against the best of her people. Her arc goes from hating the surface world to finding the innocence that exists within it (specifically a child’s kindness to her changes her point of view). It is an organic change and I wish she’d been the lead. She would make a much better Queen than Arthur would a King.
Flat Acting and the Leads – I’m covering a few things here because it applies across the board. Black Manta only ever shows anger and doesn’t have the moral complexity of a Killmonger or Thanos, at least in how he is written and acted, Orm is a little better but even his hatred of the surface world and willingness to kill and hurt his own isn’t explored either, leading to either very flat or very ham scenes, and Arthur’s arc makes no sense. He goes from a surfer bro pounding beers to the wise King of Atlantis. There isn’t an inbetween here and he is largely grating in how he continues to mock everything around him for the majority of the time he is on screen. Momoa not having that great of range for the character doesn’t help. I really appreciate how great Hemsworth is as Thor as both are similar in that they love fighting and drinking and need to come into their own as Kings. I believed Thor becoming King and that he was someone who had grown up. Arthur felt like an entirely different character than he was even a few scenes before after he becomes King. This was whiplash that I blame on the writing, the flat performance and Momoa’s limited range as an actor.
Telling Rather Than Showing – A huge thing that brings down the film is how often we are told the plot. There were moments we could have been shown, either in a painting or an artifact, but instead more often than not, Mera or an ancient King is explaining the plot to us and why so and so must get the artifact. It hurts the flow of the story and there is far too much of it. This telling reminded me very much of Episode 1 and 2 of the Prequels where we are told plot points rather than shown them and all that changes is location. The fact that Momoa has as much range as Hayden Christensen also brought back Prequel flashbacks. This film needed a rewrite for these scenes as they played into another problem, the agency of our hero.
Arthur Curry and Agency – Much of this film is Mera taking Arthur to locations to get exposition or to find a Mcguffin. It starts when she takes him to Atlantis to challenge Orm and after that it never stops. The only agency Arthur has is choosing whether to come with her or not and after they are being hunted by Orm it is no longer a choice since they’ll try to kill him anyway if he stops moving. This leads to major whiplash when Arthur goes from Surfer Bro to Wise King in the span of a scene. We never saw him make choices in regards to the people he would be leading. The choices were all actions driven by Mera to make him King, one reason she should have been the lead and been Queen. This was far more her story than his but he is the main character. If we had been shown him facing more choices and growing into his role as King, that transformation would have been believable. I never felt he was truly at risk because he never had his darkest moment. His father was always saved, he discovers his mother is alive, Mera is fine and he doesn’t care about the war between the Ocean Kingdoms. If any of these things had changed to give him a reason to take responsibility this film would have been good. All we needed was greater choice and consequence for Arthur and even Momoa’s limited acting wouldn’t matter as much.
This is not the worst of the new DC films and I had fun. This isn’t a film I’d ever buy, but it made me interested in the world of the comics and I really enjoyed the universe it all takes place in. The biggest detriment is the writing and some very flat performances. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry never felt like he had agency. He is brought everywhere so I never felt like it was him making a choice, it was just him punching things until it worked. It made me admire the first “Thor” film and Thor as a character a lot more. I did like the Aquaman I saw at the end of the film, so there is promise for this series if there is a sequel, I just hope the villains aren’t as flat next time around and that Arthur is more complex and has more agency. If you are looking for a good escape over the holidays, you will enjoy this film and should give it a shot though. The movie is a beautiful mess and so much flawed fun.
Final Score: 7 / 10
An Aside: Pitbull ruins Toto’s “Africa” in this movie with his remixing of it in a song called “Ocean to Ocean.” Listen at your own discretion. You’ve been warned.