Aquaman arrives at the end of a tough few years for DC Entertainment, in their attempts to produce a viable competitor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Five and a half years on from the divisive Man of Steel, Aquaman is only the sixth entry in this continuity, with arguably 2017’s Wonder Woman being the sole film to come close to the standard to which this World should be aspiring.
Aquaman is also in danger of being a remnant of a business model from which the company is about to move on. With Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker film looking as though it will be a one-shot origin movie, set apart from Jared Leto’s take on the character, and rumours swirling that Matt Reeves’ The Batman project will take place at an earlier point in the vigilante’s career than that portrayed by Ben Affleck, Aquaman could end up being a leftover from a time when a studio thought Zack Snyder would be the ideal choice to shepherd a cinematic universe.
If this film lands, however, then it would represent the second quality release in a row for the DC Extended Universe, and could well flip that model once more back in favour of a shared continuity, with occasional one-shot alternate takes. Aquaman may yet represent that lifeline for the DC Universe, as it is a fun, occasionally beautiful, delightful mess.
Set sometime after the events of Justice League, the film begins with a prologue narrated by Aquaman / Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), as his takes the viewer through the events of his human father, lighthouse keeper, Thomas (Temuera Morrison) coming to meet Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). How they ended up naming Arthur in what will prove to be such an on-the-nose fashion (groan worthy), to how Thomas ended up a single father, with Atlanna presumed dead.
Present day Arthur finds himself trying to prevent the theft of a nuclear submarine, which we later find will have a role in attempting to force a war between the people of Atlantis and mankind on land. In preventing the hijack, he creates a foe in pirate David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who will go on to become the supervillain, Black Manta; and Arthur’s adventures will bring him into conflict with the King of Atlantis, his power-hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson). Arthur will need to prove himself worthy as the true successor to the throne, in order to prevent worldwide war.
The summary above does little justice to a plot that is wildly overstuffed for the 143 minutes that the film takes. There is a whole section of Arthur being trained as a child by King’s Counsel Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), a full section on an initial challenge to Orm by Arthur, and long land-based sections in the Sahara and in Sicily. This film is simply far too long, and lacks, seemingly, any editorial restraint. It really does seem that every idea director James Wan had ended up fully rendered and on the screen. For all its bloat, the film also does an extremely poor job in places of introducing sections, and then linking them to the wider narrative. In the context of this story, Vulko’s training of Arthur comes out of nowhere: he is suddenly on a cliff-top training him, then later on a beach. We could infer that Arthur’s mother sent him, but to what end? At that point she would have no idea that Arthur would ever be required to embrace his Atlantean heritage. We see Arthur ‘abandoned’ as a child by his mother, but the film is far too full to give any pause to reflect on what this meant to him. We go straight from this to seeing him saving the crew of a submarine, and then straight on to drinking heavily with his father in a bar very similar to that in which Bruce Wayne found him in Justice League. In cramming in so much, Wan has crowded what is a simple hero’s journey with far too much plot, and leaves little time for the character work.
On a technical level, the film is all over the place. Parts look sumptuous. The first reveal of an underwater civilisation to the young Arthur as he learns he can see in the dark, is truly a thing of beauty, and the film has really brought to bear the realisation that if it can be conceived of, then it can now be realised. The quality and style are both wildly erratic, however. Flashbacks utilise the sort of de-ageing affects we have seen Marvel employ, but to a far lesser degree of effectiveness. This is only noteworthy, as it was actually laugh out loud funny to see Willem Dafoe with fewer creases on his face than he would have had at birth, and Temuera Morrison looking like he could, plausibly, have auditioned for The Bee Gees.
World design is also a mix of the good and bad, the variation across the different kingdoms showing intelligent world-building, but henchman and certain sets evoking both the Star Wars prequels and, sadly, even Power Rangers at times. Oh, and this incarnation of Black Manta, however faithful it might be, looks terrible in live action: evoking, as he did, a character in a children’s film. The film is a bizarre mix of the awe inspiring and the Batman Forever-style camp.
In the rush to spill out the surfeit of plot points, the film has little time to develop the interpersonal relationships either. Amber Heard’s Mera has absolutely no chemistry whatsoever with Arthur. In the context of this story, she would have been better utilised in a similar fashion to Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – a guide, with whom there is a slight playfulness, but that is all. This particular point represents the very worst of DC’s inclination towards thinking of the end destination over the here and now of the story. That’s how we ended up with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – a complete lack of patience in allowing relationships and events to mature in their own organic fashion.
The film is simply so much fun, however. Momoa is extremely well-suited to this take on the character, and is able to demonstrate self-reliance, yet marry that to a complete naivety, in a way that works. He makes for a very charismatic lead. Wan wisely moves between land and sea, to a greater degree than the promotional campaign suggested likely. Thus, the film has a welcome variation of visuals, with (poor green-screen aside – typical of the film as a whole) a section in Sicily being a highlight. The score to this film will end up a point of division, as it is as eclectic as the film it is accompanying. We have electronic sections that sound reminiscent of Thor: Ragnarok (itself taking inspiration from a number of 80s films), occasional forays into hard rock (most usually around Mera), rap and, in the aforementioned Sicilian sequence we get… Roy Orbison! The score, like the film, though, is always commanding our attention.
This approach of throw everything at it and see what sticks will lead to a wild diversity in reviews of Aquaman, but this is now a viable universe, with an entertaining lead, some enjoyable side-characters, portrayed by quality actors. Much more of this, and the DC Extended Universe may even be able to come off life support.