Directed by: James Wan Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beal
“Everything’s better down where it’s wetter,” sings Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid. While the crustacean may not have realized it, his words were anticipating Aquaman the latest release in the new DC Comics cinematic universe. Going into Aquman I’d long been frustrated with the notion of the 3-D movie. In my ideal world 3-D would be an occasional novelty: an effect that would make the rare movie special. Unfortunately, in our free market society, once someone adopts a marketable innovation, everyone’s got to do it. Now I’m regularly stuck going to 3-D movies, and I regularly don’t care: I often cease to remember the effect is there a couple of frames in. Aquaman, with its repeated dives into shimmering depths, is a work that, for once, made me appreciate the 3-D experience. So I suppose credit should be given to director James Wan and his technical team for making this uniquely beautiful superhero movie. But, to go back to our friend Sebastian, there is undoubtedly something innately majestic about water itself: a colorless substance that mysteriously adopts blues and greens into its sparkling, viscous matrix. Aquman takes this natural canvas and paints ecosystems both biological and fantastical. To top things off, Aquman also sometimes breaks the surface, presenting viewers with pristine seaside sunsets, and a pinch of a Wes Anderson-esque boat scene.
I’ve repeatedly heard that the D.C universe has failed to live up to the standards set by its Marvel rivals. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Marvel fan and, outside of Wonder Woman, I haven’t given D.C. much of a shot. So while, I cannot comment on whether this trend continues, I can make two relevant points.
Firstly while Aquman’s shortcomings as a script are apparent, it nonetheless offers a sensory experience that should keep many happily in the theater. I speak primarily, of course, of its aquatic visuals, however, I also found its combat scenes enjoyable as well. Aquman (Jason Momoa) and his rival King Orm (Patrick Wilson), wear shimmering outfits that make them look uniquely like action figures (particularly two (unrelated) figures I grew up). This, and the fact that they fight with tridents and bodies (not bullets), gave me a degree of investment in their fights I might not have felt in another superhero movie piece. Perhaps there was something appealing about the intimacy of the combat style, and/or perhaps it tapped into my memories of making my action figures fight as a child.
The other is that Aquaman resembles, and falls short of the standards sets by two of Marvel’s other creations: Black Panther (without the politics) and Thor. Aquaman is a half-surface-dwelling, half-Atlantean person, who is called by his supporters in Atlantis to challenge his half brother Orm for the Atlantean throne. The film thus resembles Black Panther in that it depicts an isolated society that, despite looking down on the technological backwardness of others, maintains an oddly violent and autocratic system of governance (Aquaman’s Atlantis, however, lacks the generally peaceful and redeeming air of Black Panther’s Wakanda). The film, meanwhile, resembles Thor in that it’s about a struggle between two brothers, torn apart via issues with their parental lineages, struggling for control of a mythological kingdom.
Aquman doesn’t quite hold the candle to these two franchises, however. This is partially because both of the aforementioned movies are defined by their having memorable central-antagonists. Thor’s Loki built a fan-base on his being an anti-hero more than a villain, and ultimately embracing his identity as the Norse god of mischief. He exists to be a memorable member of the Marvel universe in his own right, and not merely a source of darkness for Thor to vanquish. Black Panther’s villain, meanwhile, is also unique in that he is not simply morally complex, but in fact completes a yin-yang relationship with Black Panther: both, it becomes apparent, must learn from the other.
While King Orm is not uncomplicated, he is denied the depth of Loki and Killmonger, due to Aquaman’s general paint by numbers approach. The film never digs deep into its sibling conflict or its environmentalist themes, because it seems these details are only their to check off boxes: villain origin story (check), motivation for civilizational conflict (check), a mentor character who vaguely resembles Forest Whitaker’s character from Black Panther (played in this case by Willem Defoe) (check), a love-interest for Aquaman who also fights, so she’s not a dated-damsel-in-distress trope (played by Amber Heard) (check) . The underdevelopment of these various plot elements is accented by unsubtle dialogue. The script throws in a number of shockingly abrupt conversations that spell out exactly where the plot is going.
That said, there is one part of the film that did resonate with me on an emotional level. Fairly early on we are introduced to Aquman’s arch nemesis-Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) when he is a mere pirate working with his father (Micheal Beach). Though the characters are portrayed as violent villains, the relationship between Black Manta and his father is undeniably tender. The tenderness, however, is so well portrayed that it felt frustrating that it was not elaborated on. There is no doubt we can expect a future movie which will build on the Black Manta story-line since, in this film, he is abruptly pushed aside to allow Orm to serve as the primary villain. I thus suppose I’ll have reserve my judgement of that particular character arc for the future. In short, the portrayal of Manta and his father is simultaneously satisfying and frustrating, and makes me wish superhero filmmakers were more concerned with producing individually, excellent movies rather than simply building franchises.
In the long run I won’t remember Aquaman as one of my favorite movies of 2018. Nonetheless, it provides excellent reason to go to the theaters. Aquaman offers a rare chance to be excited about putting on those 3-D glasses: so go ahead, your adventure awaits “Under the Sea.”