I like superhero films, generally. I think I am genetically predisposed to get the most out of them. And, yes, that does include the likes of Batman Vs Superman which I enjoyed for its operatic scale.
But Aquaman doesn’t even command the string section. What went wrong, given it is directed by James Wan, I find hard to fathom.
The biggest problem for me with Aquaman is the utter lack of world building. There is a lot of world but we only see it, ironically, at the surface level. So we are introduced to the undersea kingdoms but never get the vaguest concept of what it is like to live in one. Just a few royals, if you’re lucky and an army of soldiers, en masse. Arguably you can’t do as much in two hours and change as you can in a season of Game Of Thrones, but in movies like Fifth Element, Modern Engines, Lord Of The Rings and even Valerian you get an idea of how the various societies work and how people live in them. Otherwise, it becomes an unrelatable veneer, a computer game skin, layered over the top. And this film doesn’t break the surface.
That we learn more about the village, the bar, the people who live in and around the lighthouse in the seconds they are on screen, than we do the entire city of Atlantis is unforgivable and is the biggest contributor to the overwhelming feeling of ‘meh’ this film washes up on shore.
As for Aquaman, the filmmakers clearly see him as a bit like Thor, but with fewer jokes, and a bit like Logan, but without the feeling of danger. He even swears a little for comedy effect, but it’s muted and PG-worthy. This from the mouth of a sailor as well. It constantly feels as if there is a different Aquaman inside, waiting to let loose, but the film constantly cages him. Now Jason Momoa plays a topless wet muscled man very very well indeed, but it feels as if there was so much more denied us, from his rage to his ridiculousness. It is possible the audience won’t care.
But when you make the villain’s father a much more intriguing and watchable character than the villain himself, well that’s a problem too. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays a driven Black Manta who is all one note, missing any subtlety, contradiction of nuance – and given that, he doesn’t even chew the scenery well. Michael Beach as a previous Manta is far more engaging to watch on the screen and your really wish they’d gone for him instead. Black Manta gets an origin and power set as part of the Atlantean political machinations that even the most loyal of royal subjects would have seen through, and there’s even a justification for the size of his helmet included, but it’s a shame his dad didn’t live long enough to snatch the suit from his son’s hands.
There are high points in Aquaman, undoubtedly. The double parallel rooftop chase in Sicily is a spectacle that stands out in the film. Atlantis is beautiful, in as much as a cross between Tron, The Abyss and Avatar would look. But too much of it is flash without substance, and it doesn’t have the depth of those films and ends up as a bit of a wet fish.
The ‘quest’ also seems horribly by the numbers, with anything anyone said about the worlds below suddenly becoming the maps they take. It feels more like a bad game than a fresh narrative. And will you note the horribly obvious plot hole regarding the Sicilian statues? It’s a big one… and then it just descends into indistinguishable battle after battle – but strangely bloodless. This is Aquaman the video game more than the film.
The humor is surprisingly lacking, given how Aquaman was played in Justice League. There are a couple of attempts early on to Thor him up, but everyone seems to take him far too seriously. This is epitomized by an early scene in which he is teased as a child for the Aquaman gag about him ‘talking to fish’, the turned into very real danger. This film wants you to take Aquaman seriously even when it fights against it. I much prefer it when he doesn’t feel the need.
The Aquaman/Mera relationship works, though far more of a buddy cop with Momoa and Amber Heard than the romantic inevitability shovelled on at the end. Nicole Kidman has a hell of sparkle as the Queen Atlanna, and William DeFoe‘s Vulko I would happily see more of. I’d even give props to the stoic nature of Temuera Morrison playing Aquaman’s father, Tom Curry. But Patrick Wilson‘s King Orm, Dolph Lundgren‘s King Nereus and the all the invading armies can be flushed away as far as I am concerned.
This might have worked as a preview. To give you a taster of worlds to come. But with so many opportunities missed, even to have shown what one of the soldiers was going through, constantly used as cannon fodder for the CGI, this is less like Game Of Thrones and more like Green Lantern. You thought they’d have learnt…
Obviously, your mileage may vary. I don’t actively want my two hours back and am glad I saw the film. But by wanting to be so many things to so many people, I think it has lost what it could have been somewhere in the middle.
Aquaman opens in the UK on the 12th December and in the US on the 21st December.