To make its own waves, Aquaman leans into earnestness
I don’t think I’m insulting comic book media when I say that there is something inherently silly about it, at least when it comes to superheroes. Even in situations where powerful costumed crime fighters are being used to serve a darker storyline, there’s a level of creative indulgence that needs to border on the absurd in order to work. It’s one of the reasons that, as much as I love them, the Christopher Nolan Batman films are slightly lacking to me. Putting Batman into the real world is not something I find interesting, mostly because the idea of a billionaire donning a teched-out bat costume and taking down an evil clown man is incompatible with reality. Batman Returns is more my taste. It’s an explicitly supernatural film. Batman belongs in this world of evil circuses, penguin men, and an undead woman with the powers of a housecat (yes, she has powers). So for me it has been very interesting to watch the past decade of superhero flicks wrestle with tone. Lean too hard into camp and the audience starts thinking of it all as kids stuff. Lean too hard into seriousness and they wonder where the all the kids stuff is.
DC, for a variety of reasons, has been all over the place with tone. Some like it (that’s me), some don’t (that’s probably you), but no matter where you stand, I think we can all agree that Aquaman is potentially the silliest of the Super Friends. Admittedly, I don’t know much about the character, but I do know that his superpowers include the abilities to swim, talk to fish, and do cool bo staff moves with his trident. I’m sure there’s more, given that Aquaman has been around forever, but for the most of us, we just know him from Justice League, Entourage, and a handful of memes. So with Aquaman, the 6th superhero film in the DCEU, the studio’s biggest challenge is finding a product that matches the prior films in the brand, while answering to the criticisms cast upon it. At the same time, they’ve gotta deliver a film that works on its own merit AND pleases the handful of hardcore Aquafans out there. It feels impossible, but for the most part, James Wan and his team have pulled it off, and it all comes down to tone. Aquaman embraces the cheese and leans into it hard, with nary a wink or nod. Just think of Wan’s previous work with Furious 7. The second that the Fast franchise goes meta, its over. The earnestness is what sells, and in Aquaman, this exact earnestness bubbles through in every frame. When you’ve got Dolph* Lundrgen shooting a laser cannon from atop his giant seahorse while his flowing red locks dance to the motions of the sea, it needs to.
The film clocks in at just under 2.5 hours, so needless to say there is a ton of plot. I’ll give you the diet version. Thirty-some years ago, a lighthouse keeper stumbles across a refugee Queen from the underwater kingdom of Atlantis when she washes up on the shore after a storm. The two pretty quickly fall in love and start getting it on even though she eats his pet fish. Soon enough, young Aquaman is born. But before he’s old enough to fight sea-crime, bounty hunters from Atlantis come to retrieve his mother and take her back to her duties as queen, which include an arranged marriage to some jerk. In the present day, King Orm, leader of one of the tribes Atlantis, has decided to wage war on the surface world. Naturally, Aquaman is caught in the middle, even though he’d rather get drunk and fight pirates. Meanwhile, a super pirate who’s beefing with Aquaman has decided to enact revenge on his enemy.
The bad news is that there is a ton of exposition, and even with the aforementioned earnestness in full force, the scenes of people standing/floating around and talking quickly start to pile up. The good news is that Wan is such an inventive director — and he’s working with such imaginative design — that the film remains easy to watch, even in the moments when the pace becomes noticeable. But even with a varied pace, the tone remains consistent, and that’s what matters. Colorful, showy, and goofy as hell, Aquaman is a film full of characters not content to simply pump a fist in the air when the opportunity for a primal scream presents itself. When they scowl, they scowl with the intensity of a scorned in-law. When they kiss, they practically eat each other’s faces off.
And when they fight, they fight like professional wrestlers. Fisticuffs is the one area in which the DCEU truly excels, and Wan’s style is a perfect fit. The choreography remains clear even as the camera zips around the fighters. The CG heavy backdrops never get in the way of the action, and oftentimes they add to it. A standout throwdown between Aquaman and King Orm uses an underwater volcano to its fullest potential. Oh, and I should mention that the underwater physics are natural, intuitive, and frequently jaw-dropping. Transitions from sea to land and back are flawless, and the physics remain consistent throughout. Wan does a lot of cuts around his action beats, but never in the interest of hiding a shortcoming. No, his visual flourishes serve only to highlight the feats on display, guiding the viewer’s eye to exactly where it needs to be for maximum impact. This is especially important if you see the film in IMAX (a handful of scenes were shot in the the full IMAX aspect ratio). Oftentimes a filmmaker will lose visual clarity within such a large canvas. Not here. Be it an empty desert, or an underwater kingdom, Wan keeps all of the excess in check. Perfectly balanced, as everything should be.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
There’s even a wonderful sequence in which Wan gets to show off his horror chops. You’ll know it when you see it.
Many moons ago, when Game of Thrones first started gaining traction, I remember someone on film twitter wondering why the powers that be were trying to make Jason Momoa “happen.” At the time, I definitely understood the sentiment, even if I didn’t know enough about the guy to agree or disagree. Well, it looks like whoever said it was wrong. Momoa is definitely happening, and Aquaman is a great vehicle to show off his brand. No, he’s not the most versatile actor, nor is he physically capable of being chameleonic in any way, but he sure is big, buff, and charming. His Aquaman is a gruff surfer bro type who enjoys spouting one-liners and shirking authority just as much as he enjoys drinking giant steins of beer. He’s like Bodhi from Point Break, only he’s the size of a house. Of all the heroes in the DCEU, it’s Aquaman who seems to be having the most fun. Since he’s having fun, we’re having fun.
Also having fun is Patrick Wilson as King Orm. He’s a slimy slime ball slime face whose quest for power is well-motivated by family issues, and Wilson commits to it fully. One iota toward either seriousness or camp would derail it entirely, but Wilson nails it. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does wonders with his minimally featured villain, Black Manta, commanding every scene he’s in from behind a scuba mask reminiscent of a Power Rangers beastie. Amber Heard, as Aquaman’s cohort Mera, is a delight. She’s as charming as Aquaman, and twice as smart. One scene finds the duo is bickering while marching through the desert, and their interaction is happily reminiscent of Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood. In fact, if there’s anything tonally in sync with Aquaman, it’s Indiana Jones.
Think Thor meets Indiana Jones meets sea monkeys. Yeah that sounds about right.
Overall, Aquaman is everything it needs to be in order to succeed. It looks great, it’s a ton of fun, and the action sequences are truly a step forward in terms of merging coherence with cinematic show-offery. Stay through half of the credits for a small piece of sequel teasing, but don’t bother staying until the very end, as there is nothing further. That’s right, there is nothing here which speaks to a larger, universe-wide narrative link. Perhaps this is because DC’s plan is in flux. Perhaps this is because they’re not interested in reminding viewers about the much maligned Justice League. Who knows? Whatever the reason, it’s a benefit to the film. Aquaman works in a vacuum, and in that way it’s a nice throwback to the first decade of the 2000s.
De-aged Nicole Kidman looks almost exactly like present-aged Nicole Kidman.
De-aged Willem Dafoe is something that no amount of forethought can prepare you for.
Amongst some of the trash floating in the sea, I spotted an Annabelle doll. Certainly, this is just Wan referencing his other work for fun, but for me, this is an official announcement that the Conjuring Universe and the DCEU are one. You cannot convince me otherwise.
My girlfriend joked that the ocean people swim using the power of their farts. Once this thought was introduced to me, I couldn’t unsee it. I would like to pass this opportunity for joy unto you. You’re welcome.
*This initially autocorrected as “Dolphin Lundgren” and I almost left it.
Aquaman opens in Philly theaters today.