The trailer for Aquaman shows off all the fun stuff: the bioluminescent splendor of an underwater metropolis, battle sharks, and, of course, Jason Momoa, the closest thing to Arnold Schwarzenegger we have today. Watching the entire movie reveals the bad: the hackneyed writing, the redundant superhero origin crap, the silly main villain. Aquaman cracks under scrutiny, yet it’s not a regrettable watch. Stuck somewhere between an over-soaked camp classic and a legit superhero film, director James Wan’s movie isn’t self-aware enough to be a “good bad movie,” and it’s far from the likes of Black Panther.
Consider the world building of Wakanda in Black Panther, the immersive cityscape, the interior production design, the costumes — it’s transportive, beckoning us to explore and wonder what else is hidden in the secret country. Aquaman, similarly, introduces the legendary city of Atlantis. However, the experience is ironically shallow. There’s not much to it besides what’s shown in the trailer. Finding Nemo was made 15 years ago and its submarine vision blows Aquaman’s CGI world out of the water.
Comparatively, Aquaman suffers, but it’s not devoid of thrills. The opening sequence, featuring an explosive Nicole Kidman as Aquaman’s mama, Queen Atlanna, is a bang-up way to start the film. And Arthur Curry’s (Momoa) journey to the “The Trench” is Cousteau-worthy, or Zissou-worthy, despite the lack of jaguar sharks. A superhero movie that takes place underwater is going to have its share of cool stuff. But cool stuff does not a movie make, and Aquaman flounders when it tries to become a real flick.
We meet Atlanna so we can learn how Aquaman became Aquaman. Arthur was born the son of lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and the Queen of Atlantis (Kidman). Dad rescues Mom after the ocean spits her up and they spawn a lovechild. Entrusted to her loyal advisor, Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the queen’s son is trained to become a warrior. But Arthur’s rejected by Atlantis because he’s a half-breed.
That brings us to the present. Set one year after the events of Justice League, Aquaman’s redundant storyline features a Machiavellian power move by Curry’s younger brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson). He wants the throne for himself and uses a pirate attack as pretext to attack the surface dwelling humans. Meanwhile, his intended wife, Mera (Amber Heard), rejects him and goes to find Curry for help. They meet up with Vulko who tells Arthur about the lost Trident of Atlan, the weapon that’ll legitimize his claim to the throne. It’s all very Camelot. Arthur and Mera journey far and wide to find the trident, fighting enemies like Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) along the way. And the movie concludes with a spectacular underwater battle sequence as Curry truly becomes Aquaman (gold suit and all), and embraces his new kingdom.
It’s worth applauding the DC Extended Universe’s casting of Momoa in the lead, although it’s been done ad nauseam by now. Arthur Curry was a blond bore in the comics who could talk to seahorses and always paled in comparison to fellow Justice Leaguers Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. Curry was the least interesting, least badass of the crew. So inserting Momoa was a way to neutralize Aquaman’s bore-factor, and does it ever. The actor has shark teeth tattooed on his arm. He was born for this role, and he’s the only real reason to see it.
Kids will love the underwater battles of Aquaman, but they’re garden variety at best. Sure, they take place underwater and feature cool battle animals, but there’s little to inspire originality (Sharknado turns sharks into weapons too) and they’re way too long. Plus, the submerged setting gives birth to unsolvable problems like — how do people talk underwater? The movie’s answer? They just do. But everyone’s long hair floats around like in real life. There are conflicting problems of realism that tank this movie, but kids won’t care. You can forgive this kind of stuff and just let it wash over you, or you can eye roll your way through it. Aquaman is made to be fun and it is, for the most part, just don’t try telling anyone it’s actually a real movie.
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