If Aquaman had come first, oh what a DC Comics cinematic universe we’d have. Instead of starting on the grim, gritty tone of Man of Steel, we could’ve started with an imaginative, fantastical world built around a charismatic hero that gets to be happy with who he is before the credits roll. It’s almost painful to think of the possibilities.
Aquaman isn’t a perfect movie. It’s overstuffed and it has too much exposition for its own good, but it’s still a riot, with tons of action. For DC Comics and Aquaman fans both, it feels like a huge moment.
A VFX Achievement
While I can fantasize about what might have happened if Aquaman came first among the DC Universe movies, it’s hard to look at it and imagine it having existed 10 years ago. Even in this age of CG-heavy movies, it’s hard to think of live-action movies as heavy on computer-generated graphics as Aquaman. But it pays off – this movie looks fantastic.
And when I say fantastic, I mean “having a sense of fantasy”, not just “badass”. Few movies are as willing to depart from reality as Aquaman. It’s refreshing.
While a few parts of this movie take place above water, a huge portion is beneath the waves. The visual style of Atlantis and the Atlanteans is one of the big highlights of Aquaman. Atlantis is a utopia of sorts, where a kingdom disconnected from the surface has progressed far beyond on its own. Undersea locales are often depicted as decaying in the comics, but Atlantis, all bioluminescence and gleaming white walls, is definitely not.
The brunt of our time with the Atlanteans themselves is spent with nobility and military figures, so we don’t get a good picture of how Atlanteans live from day to day, but seeing Atlanteans soldiers riding sharks and seahorses, riding in fish-like undersea vessels, and darting through water is just as fun as I’d hoped. We meet literal fishmen and other undersea beings, and they all look gloriously distinct from other races.
The whole thing feels like it should: like another world.
The biggest shame of it all is that we don’t get to explore it more. As I said, a lot of the time is spent either in combat, or in scenes where various nobility figures stare each other down and make not-so-veiled threats. For the story that the movie is telling, that works well enough, but it feels like Aquaman went to Atlantis on a business trip. We see the world on the way to places and get very little time actually in it. In Black Panther, we spent time both on the street and in the throne room; Aquaman is all throne room.
And all that time spent with the ruling class brings us to some of the movie’s faults.
Let’s Go on an Adventure (or three)
Aquaman is an overstuffed movie to say the least.
We’re running at a breakneck pace from one scene to the next, from cold open to origin to Atlantis to escape to adventure to another adventure to a battle to a battle to an epilogue, and it’s still almost two and a half hours long. It feels like a sampler platter with more stuff than you can eat and not enough of any one thing to feel satisfied.
Part of that feeling of too-much-ness comes from how much of the time spent talking is done in exposition – straight-up information delivery. We learn very little about anyone in the movie aside from Arthur Curry himself. Even Arthur’s love interest, Mera (Amber Heard), is there to do little more than be a sexy water wizard with a low-cut top. The costume is impressively comic-accurate, but that means it looks very silly in a live-action film; it could’ve used some rethinking.
Other characters, like Orm the Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson) are there to look villainously smug or, in Vulko’s (Willem Dafoe) case, to look like a true undersea dweller. (Willem, you’re one of the best actors of our generation, but let’s face it, you’re also a weird-looking dude.)
Their depth feels more like a 16-bit RPG than like a movie. A little too much of the dialogue could be replaced with “here is your quest, here is a map,” “here is the puzzle, let’s do the puzzle together,” and lines of about that depth. That also means lots of cheesy, trope-y superheroisms about how We Don’t Need a King We Need a Hero.
One character that could’ve really used fleshing out is Orm. We see him scheming, but it seems like his only motivation is to have more power for the sake of having more power. And that’s a shame, because one of his big moves suggests that he has more going on in his head than blind power grabbing. After he unleashes a big attack on the surface I found myself saying “finally, someone is doing something about it, it’s about time.” In other words, Orm has a point. I would love to see them fight about that point rather than who gets to wear the Atlantean crown, even if the implication is that who wears the crown decides the point. Black Panther was about two nobles fighting, but they were fighting over an idea, and that idea was going to be the life or death of their world.
The other is Black Manta. In the movie, he’s a pirate with ultra-high-tech equipment, and his battle with Aquaman becomes a simple revenge story, and it’s one that doesn’t resonate. He’s fun to watch, but the actor doesn’t get to do anything but brood a bunch before being stuffed into the CGI outfit and shooting eye lasers at Aquaman. He feels criminally under-used here.
The saving grace, of course, is Jason Momoa, a walking mountain of human charisma. At first glance, he isn’t the most obvious take on Aquaman. In a world where we see actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. cast because of how easily they fit into their comic-book roles, there’s no version of Jason Momoa that fits into the blonde, clean-cut look of classic Arthur Curry. Momoa is a hulk of a man, and I have a hard time imagining him without the scruffy beard, tattoos, and epic locks. He looks at-home in the Aquaman look, as if he just woke up and went in front of the camera without a stop at the makeup truck.
He owns every scene he’s in, and that “My man!” crack from Justice League feels as if it informed the tone of how Aquaman was written. In other words, it caters directly to Momoa’s scary-guy-who-probably-gives-really-nice-hugs reputation. I don’t know if any human could match Dwayne Johnson’s charisma, but Momoa’s not far off in the way he can take up a whole shot even when the camera pulls back to a full-length shot.
Despite my issues with it, I really enjoyed watching Aquaman. Director James Wan did a great job of turning Atlantis into another world and making Aquaman feel like he deserved at least one movie, if not more. Jason Momoa is a big part of that, but the world building was crucial, too. With the Atlantean world the movie builds, it feels like there’s so much to explore. I’d love to see future movies deal with Arthur as the King of Atlantis and to see him interacting with the other undersea races we only got to witness a few minutes of.
There’s so much here that deserves more time and more love, and it’s movies like this and Wonder Woman – movies that show hopeful superheroes who bear their responsibility proudly – that make me excited for DC comic-book movies. I want more Aquaman, and I think that, finally, the rest of the world will too.