Movie Review: Aquaman
By Ben Gruchow
December 27, 2018
Aquaman tap-dances on the edge of being unworkable so frequently that it’s really rather invigorating to witness. It is a loud film, in every perceptible way: visuals, sound design, score, narrative, casting, wardrobe. The immediate perception is of an overheated mess that lacks any sort of tonal discipline. We’re instinctively alerted toward an impending tonal disaster, a 2018 model on that type of ragged studio graft job that’s never sure of what it wants to be or when it wants to be it (basically Suicide Squad). Then it ends up pulling off the twist of never actually being as bad as it threatens to be. The movie so reliably pulls back from the precipice of failure—and in some cases pole-vaults gamely right over it, into some kind of fevered splendor—that we’re agreeable rather than put off.
The title character is making his first solo appearance, after a supporting role in 2017’s Justice League. This one is another origin story, though it’s at least one that grants the insubstantial coming-of-age passages with the fleet amount of screen time they deserve rather than laboriously carving through a setup for a character we’ve already met and presumably like. Jason Momoa is Aquaman (referred to here as Arthur; the movie is in keeping with the tradition of the DC Universe films by never referring to their central characters by their superhero name), and he has superpowers but not agency; what he’s up to at the start of the film is anyone’s guess, beyond rescuing random seafarers from random pirates.
This changes in short order. Arthur is a half-breed, the son of a human and a princess from the royal aquatic kingdom of Atlantis. He has a half-brother named Orm (Patrick Wilson), who has asserted himself as the heir to the throne. All well and good, except that Orm uses his ascendancy to the throne to manipulate the denizens of Atlantis and the other underwater nations into an assault on the surface world. Thus is Arthur set up to conquer Orm and reclaim what he is assured is his rightful place; to do this, he must acquire a secret weapon with the aid of the Atlantean warrior Mera (Amber Heard) and Atlantean counsel Vulko (Willem Dafoe). Much of the film, then, acts as a CGI-augmented oceanic travelogue with Momoa and Heard occupying most of the screen time and the other characters popping up here and there to offer quips or exposition. It is not spoiling things to note that this will eventually build toward an all-out battle between the different civilizations.
I realize that I’ve spent the last paragraph and change outlining the mechanisms of Aquaman’s plot and motivations, when I could have just said “It’s a lot like Thor except better, just like Wonder Woman was a lot like Captain America but better”. The key observation here is that being better than Thor is a damn sight easier than being better than Captain America, and leaves plenty of room for the better film to still be mostly unremarkable if that’s the way it shakes out. As it is, almost nothing in this film leaves much of an impression, and it’s entirely possible to walk out of the auditorium afterward with naught but the most fleeting memories of a certain visual or line or plot development. It’s the first time that a DC film has approached the sense of overriding individual inconsequentiality that pervades the Marvel films.
That perception of inconsequentiality, and its source, is also key to why I assess Aquaman positively. Both the Marvel and DC films have enlisted a broad range of directorial style for their entries, but the resulting ethos on display between the two couldn’t be more different. Where the Marvel franchise has done an immaculate job of conforming any and all of its directorial hands into a more-or-less identical overarching style, DC has more or less been developing its storytelling ethic on the fly, off the reaction to each subsequent entry in the canon. It’s true that most of the development has been inverse with each new film to the preceding one, which is arguably expected when you fast-track an entire cinematic universe and jam four movies’ worth of content into two. Still, this has permitted the individual DC films to possess something like their own directorial signature.
The signature for Aquaman belongs to James Wan, he of the Conjuring movies and Furious 7, and I think that’s the key to why the impression of an undisciplined mess is only an impression, and a false one at that. Wan is an exuberant filmmaker, regardless of genre; his primary skill in trade is establishment of an emotionally-authentic narrative fabric and then expending enormous amounts of energy rollicking around within that fabric without ever once puncturing it. There is a self-confidence in the sturdiness of his world-building, and a resulting earnestness in how those boundaries are tested, that manipulates us into the right frame of mind. Wan’s movies always feel at home in their own skin.
True to form, his Aquaman is a blithe and ceaselessly-moving adventure film that never feels less than totally precise in its aim. When the climactic battle setpiece comes, we never get the sense that we’re watching hundreds of random CGI beasts overwhelming the film with random clashing color and light and sound; we get the sense that the setpiece is exactly as crowded and elevated in temperature in exactly the ways Wan intends for it to be, down to the last CGI beast in the farthest corner of the frame. There is a kind of insane, intense discipline at work; the director seems to know how ridiculous the story and screenplay is, and how little would have to go wrong for the entire thing to collapse into an unwatchable quagmire, and he succeeds in keeping the affair this side of that line—only just.
It helps that the cast is pretty uniformly on the right wavelength, understanding that the approach necessary is one of underplaying the material rather than chewing the scenery. Momoa and Heard play off each other well, occupying ancient storytelling tropes with the right degree of shallow ambivalence to fit a frame narrative that doesn’t really care about any of the ostensible stakes that it sets. Wilson comes to the role fairly well unimpeded; an actor of limited range and expression, he plays Orm’s villainous aspirations in a flatly resentful key that only really falters in the brief moments where the character has to call out a battle cry or vent at another Atlantean. Only the side villain character of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) really misses the mark from beginning to end, overacting almost from his first scene, and his exposure in the film is thankfully limited.
These dynamics take place against a film that is sometimes entirely-CGI and sometimes photographed with an eye toward the surreal. There are compositions with a startling degree of beauty, and action sequences that are a notch or two more fluid and expressive than the genre norm (Nicole Kidman, as the Atlantean queen and Arthur’s mother, gets to headline the movie’s first and best combat sequence, a punchy and tightly-wound ballet of destruction inside and through Arthur’s childhood house). Wan never holds on these for too long, because he’s always looking toward maintaining momentum. This blunts the movie’s impact and staying power, and I don’t see this sticking around as a pillar of superhero cinema the way I did with Wonder Woman, but it’s a perfectly agreeable venture into this particular world.
3 out of 5