I did not actually want to do a movie review of Aquaman. This is in spite of thinking of nothing else as I got out of the cinema. To be truthful, I actually started thinking about it within the first 5 minutes of the movie). I did not want to say negative things about a movie for which I would like a sequel. But it became necessary. For one, what the movie made at the box office would easily facilitate a sequel; the last thing I wanted was being plunged in the same experiences again. I needed to give the movie a chance to reflect on where it went really wrong. I also believe that the movie could easily top those things at which it excelled.
Aquaman: the trailer’s warning
Trailers build expectations but also reveal the inner goals of a film. What the Aquaman trailer should have told me is this: ‘I hope you like taking formula’; ‘I hope you especially like the look and feel additives that are special effects, CGI’; ‘I hope you enjoy admiring Jason Momoa’s muscles being and moving’; ‘I hope you are prepared for the vestiges of Amber Heard’s pretty face and manufactured love’; ‘Surely, you are nostalgic for some Nicole Kidman moments, and other familiar faces from the past’. Only watch the movie, if you don’t mind the writers sleeping on the job. Or to be fair to the script, only watch it if you can recognise the writers’ green pen, recycling every cliché script you could imagine. Only watch it if you don’t mind chanting the next reply like it is telegraphed.
But for me the trailer was just building anticipation. This film was going to bring us the wonder world of Atlantis. It was budding with the exciting possiblities of aqualife powers. It was shining with the wonderous waterscapes and people. It was breathtaking literally and beyond. But the trailer is never the film it builds you up to want to see…
Aquaman has been by far the mascotte of the DC universe. His appearance was lame, his adventures unrelatable. His presence always felt inorganic, and as awkwardly stiched on as Croc in Suicide Squad. The supposed hero’s kryptonite was his boring, unexciting, vanilla baby looks in a world that is looking for a superhero whose stature imposes fear, dominance and just splooshes. I personally think that it was a mistake to not take that look as an opportunity for a different type of hero. We are, after all in a universe where there are enough muscles and punches: think of the alien-infused, otherwordly knocks of Superman; ponder the best of earthlings’ martial arts in Batman; and admire the divine punishments of Diana. It is a great shame that what makes superheroes super is their ability to knock people out through their beating sleep if not sense into them. Water would have been an interesting way of dealing with life. But I accepted that the muscles will be another power knocking feature. I moved on because Arthur is half-human and grew up among us which might justify his reflexes. Also, in the end, it was not the most annoying feature.
To think that the opportunity to exploit the water element was completely under-utilised beyond the soon-to-feel super-lame “talking to fish” as Bruce almost 4th-wall broke it to us, and the borrowed water-bending from sweat (à la Katara, yes it was already perfectly done in Avatar the last airbender, the sublime anime series not the stupid movie adaptation, and generated more water; and if it were to be used by water people, as in people living in water not people who just have powers over water, it should have been done differently, like water is attracted to them so e.g. sweat doesn’t linger on them like it does on us).
He might not have laser eyes but Aquaman just felt like an underwater lesser Superman. Just like his Justice League colleague, he can live among the surface dwellers, has an earthling father and can punch the bad world to oblivion one villain at a time. And such a sentence is the proof that this fact does not need a whole film.
Too many other films copied and pasted into a new space
At times watching the movie, it felt like the writers followed a formula. One, draw a list with a selection of the best movies (and cartoons). Two, deduce what it is that people liked about these popular movies. Three, set them in the new, aquatic environment:
- The most obvious similarity is not a hidden one. Of course, Arthur Curry was always King Arthur, the blond and innocent one who would come and change the essence of ruling. So it is not surprising that there is a quest for an Excalibur-style trident. What is a little shocking is that the choice of reference for this seems to be Transformers: The Last Knight of all King Arthur-type movies.
- Did you want to see scenes of Star Wars under water? Well this is your opportunity.
- Interested in a little sea war reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, even in the number of armies? No worries. We are nonethewiser as to which one is which. We are perplexed about how the cross fire does not get either our heroes (busy as they are kissing in the middle of it, yes!) or the wrong army. All that matters is war.
- Did you want to see a little of Disney magic submerged? There you are.
- Recognise the Fifth Element’s traffic in Atlantis?
- Do you miss Iron Man, an ironic wink at the Marvel rival? Then between some of the soldier outfits and the Black Manta costume development, it is like Tony Stark has taken a turn for the worst in this adaptation. What a waste of a great character and an even better actor.
- Maybe you did not think Aquaman was Superman enough from my last section. Does a hologram of his dead father appearing in a hidden cave, granted in the (hot) desert as perfectly opposite to the (icy) fortress of solitude, persuade you?
- Fair enough, Mera’s hair was already red in the comics but it is hard to not immediately think of her as a grown-up Arielle with that hair colour and length, her status of princess, the life under the sea and her love for a surface-dweller with connections to the sea while her father has sea-only plans for her. So when she starts behaving on the surface like the ‘mermaid’ out of water that she is, it becomes harder to separate the rose-eating princess Mera from the fork-aided hair-combing princess Arielle in the little Mermaid. Although, sincerely, I must mention it: whether it is a wig or a dye, Mera’s hair could have done with looking more real! Surely the budget could have spared something more substantil for this important feature of the main heroine.
- Oh my goodness, those costumes! Let’s dress up Amber Heard and whomever we can in the eccentric manner of the Hunger Games and give it a nautical turn. I mean this was such a missed opportunity. If Atlantian clothing were shown to be marine (if there is an inspiration worth having, that would be Jules Verne’s 20000 leagues under the sea, inspiration not copy) garments that e.g. mimic sea creatures as a cloaking mechanism to never be recognised by humans and other species, the costumes would have had a seriously exciting purpose. It would have been a way to justify why no one had ever seen Atlantis, hidden in plain sight. It would have given a reason for many a sequel as Arthur and we discovered his heritage and powers slowly but excitingly.
If we can do like everyone else since we have money, why don’t we, like some of those, source and buy ground-breaking ideas?
I actually got bored!
There is only so long you can watch beautiful people exist and move in a beautiful setting! Many a time, my face went off the screen: It was looking for something interesting thing at which to gaze; it was seeking a more interesting story or rather one altogether, that will call me to want to dive into it deeper. Between one of the most empty and cliched dialogue of comics gone movie and the most extended-beyond-necessity film since the Hobbit, I did not know what my mind was supposed to take out of the content.
Because of the quality, or lack of it thereof, of the script (it was not bad just not original, and certainly not challenging or inspiring… or maybe that is what is meant by ‘bad’), the actors had little with which to work. This, of course, made the lighter-designed characters such as Jason Momoa shine more. Just as Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool, only Jason Momoa and by extension his character could utter the sentences they were given and not sound stupid, boring or vapid. But in the more serious characters, it just felt like one of those things that sound great on paper and fall flat when you hear them in context..
Such underdevelopment and clichéd characters and “stories” (for lack of a better word) started reflecting on the acting. I would like to give a reminder to the likes of Nicole Kidman. You are an actually great actress. The number of times that Nicole Kidman’s acting made me wonder if it was a clone of her rather than the award-winning actress performing the scene were amazing. Some of the scenes still play in my head, particularly the lame running towards her love.
It is as if all the greats of Hollywood have suddenly realised the superhero craze and were joining the ranks. So even though they can read the script, they know it will do great still at the box office. Hats off though to all these actors going for the DC side. It shows courage in spite of how badly the universe has done at the critics’ table and often beyond. It says something to join the losing side and continue the fight: either that you believe in it (well not in the comics since none of the actors actually knew it before they played in the movie) or that you are just doing your job.
There is nothing to learn, no growth for the characters, no sustained wonder, no anticipation. I couldn’t care less whether Amber ended up with Jason and I’d really rather they didn’t. I kept on forgetting Manta every time he was not on screen, in spite of the formidable presence of Yahya Abdul Mateen II. Multiple plots, too many villains, a constant to dizzying switch from serious to silly, visually-stunning wonders and good looking or at least familiar and beloved actors and even my so wanting for this to be great could not keep my interest at a higher level than barely average. This is a case of too much money hindering both creativity and happiness.
Amber Heard and Jason Momoa are hot. But inferring their mutual attraction and subsequent love from those mere facts is jumping ships and another unimaginative coupling. Adding to it some “we fought together when we were stranded together or we went on an adventure together so we must bone” is just the most boring progression that could have happened to seal the idea that there is no depth to the film apart from the location of Atlantis (this is the only way I can explain why no man in that universe, with all the gold rushes and diving, has not found it). The fact that this girl who was meant to marry the Atlantis king was lucky enough to fall for an Atlantis king has a whiff of the making of those arranged marriages that are being imposed to the viewer as intrinsically working because she saved him. I mean, as much as I would like to commend the reversal of roles there, there is nothing more irritating than using the latest fashion to continue to condone crap. The kiss in the middle of the battle sums it all up: It is unwarranted like their love born of crumbs of cliched situations artificially mated to birth it. Secondly, it is unwanted like being force-fed a tasteless and undigestable situation because it is sugar-coated to look pretty and advertised as gratifying a natural expectation. Finally, it is unrealistic like their floating in the middle of a war crossfire without protection and not being anywhere near hit. Wait, what I just wrote is itching at me in more ways than one. Altogether though, my suspension of belief suffered greatly from that scene alone.
The love that birthed Arthur Curry itself is dubious. I had to work hard at providing a context to believe what had happened. A lonely man in a lighthouse will most likely go for the first female-looking individual that comes to his shores, no matter how alien she was likely to be? The first man who is not the one she is escaping, by virtue of being the opposite of a royal and the opposite of an Atlantian is the person she would go for… That sounds like a Disney story, no? one that you tell a child who is growing because they do not question it. A child thinks that it is the way it works, but a grown up should know better, right? I mean did he just believe it and not panic or anything when she said that basically the mythic Atlantis exists but of all things, that she is its queen? I mean…
Can’t relate to a single villain, not even a bit. Which villain, you ask?
Yahya Abdul Mateen II plays Black Manta more than well enough but the character is uninspiring and unrelatable. It is not clear who he is, what he does, how he comes to know the Atlantian king. We don’t know what truly motivates this massively underdeveloped character beyond the clichéd father’s death and the boringly dutiful, never-failing stupid “you killed my father” revenge plot. I mean, are villains so stupid that in a battle, they still claim that others killing them demands revenge? Isn’t it the whole principle of war and battle that some, including fathers and sons, will die? That is stupid, I tell you, a stupid part and far too common part of a script. Beside, if the lack of development is supposed to generate curiosity and even interest for an origin story, I’m afraid this viewer is uninspired.
I was also hoping that beyond just giving characters names we don’t understand with costumes that don’t explain them further, there would be an effort to connect designs to ideas, look and feel to concepts. I understand that the character is just straight from the comics but production design has taken more than one liberties before and this is an opportunity that has not be pursued. Athough, with the costume destroyed at the end of the film, the opportunity rises again to create something that makes sense, with tools that befit a fight with a water superbeing. Just saying. Instead, all you can see is an oversized head that makes the DC character look like a villain alterego of antman.
Finally, I want to know how Black Manta, as a pirate man or as a costumed villain, survived the many encounters he has with what can only be called body destroyers (although Dolf Lundgreen surviving that blast is right there with it, ludicrous). Arthur throws a heavy-metal missile-shaped object in his face in the beginning. He undergoes an extremely damaging rock-hit high fall following his strangling by a chain and explosion on his face. Yet, the guy emerges unscaved mentally and physically for the most (important) part, ready to carry on his revenge or hatred mission. That is actually his real scary feature and should have been among those that help us relate to him rather than his fancy suits and weapons. Mirroring Superman vs Lex Luthor to an extent, the battle between god and man could have found better opponents. The insatiable and perseverant thirst of Manta and a relatable desperation to complete his task and revendicate his rights, with a better motivation than “you killed my dad” albeit as a natural consequence of pirating, and a better premise than being a pirate, would have provided a more relatable context to his pursuits.
I guess the other villain, maybe the principal because he fueled Black Manta’s weaponry, is the king. To be honest, I actually forgot about him until talking about Manta reminded me of the weapon exchange. Although that should say it all, I will try to expand further. King Orm’s own plots center around his anger towards his mother and half-brother as well as his green motivation for eradicating the surface polluters. The former plot is carried out with gap-filled awkwardness. The second fails for two reasons: for one, the ability of the king to throw the man-made garbage back onto their shores, which sounds by far like a better way to at least initiate an awakening; two, it misses a clear opportunity to truly showcase the impact that such pollution has on the Atlantis’ and sea inhabitants. I’m not saying to turn this into an environmentalist propaganda, just that these half-baked themes thrown here and there are understandably undigestable and confusing. The whole thing strips the king’s quest from any of its potential green and humane nobility, and looks more like the tantrum of a wounded child. Oh goodness. What can be added if not that he is clearly bored and therefore he is boring. There was nothing there for the talented Patrick Wilson to work with, and it is a shame. But you know it is always a plus to be in a big production movie so there is that for him…
So I guess in the end, maybe the film is innovative because the true villains are, in their own at once original and cliché fashion, the plot (including numerous plot holes) and the dialogue (including the unecessary ones that blot the film), even including the dreaded villain’s monologue! We might also add to that the hommage to the hero’s green and yellow suit which was only forgiven because Jason Momoa was wearing it. If they had made it look decent beyond putting that burden on Momoa’s muscles, I would have saluted the effort. They did not. It is a perfect replica, without a thing to make us any more amenable to its existence than its ability to remind us of the body underneath it and to soothe the fans (how many are there btw) with a nostalgic and dutiful reference.
I would never, in a million years, have thought that I would be bored watching a superhero movie. None of them are perfect by far, but they are not boring. Some of them are paint by the numbers but they are not boring. Few of them have as attractive a cast as Jason Momoa, Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman even though they typically have beautiful people. None of them have the magic of the water surroundings and the opportunity to take us further than what the surface allows us to do.
What it needed was more Momoa’s childish but funny, innocent and reality-based silliness, like “I could have just peed on it”. We’d love more Amber Heard badassness anchored in sea harmony not water mermaid-like magic. We’d enjoyed more of the beauty of the sea that shows how “man” can actually live in harmony with their environment rather than just duplicating what happens on the surface. We wished for a more organic build up of the animal passion between the main characters. The film craved less celebrity characters doing nothing or being forced to be on screen to tick that box. Willem Dafoe comes to mind and Dolf Lundgren almost equally wasted.
I’ll let pass the CGI’d young Kidman and partner. I’ll even ignore the irresponsible parents and instructors who did not evacuate the aquarium as soon as the glass chipped. What weakens the movie is, having set a litterally ‘wonder’-ful production design, writing a poor script and an artificially-extended paint by the numbers weak plot, then setting serious characters in it…
I do like some little touches even if they were not necessarily done on purpose. Nicole Kidman, mother of Jason Momoa for the purpose of the film is actually born in Honolulu, Hawaii, United States just like Joseph Jason Namakaeha Momoa. but of course it is more likely that being Autralian like Wan, they have followed each other’s career (she admits to it while also saying that he’d drawn her character Atlanna to look like her, so…).
I actually really, really laughed in the aftermath, when I heard Dolf Lundgren in an interview saying that the script was kind of Shakespearian. I don’t think I’ve laughed that much in a while, so thank you Mr Lundgren.
Apart from these touches what saves the film is:
- An amazing sea-deep environment bythe production design full of visual-effect wonders. And although the youngering CGI effects can be better, they are among the best I have seen.
- Jason Momoa is a great Aquaman even though I would have loved it if his muscle were for show and for more original purposes than punching
- Again, I’m still not a fan of how everything turns into a hand (or occasionally foot) fight, but Nicole Kidman’s character definitely shines in the beginning when she fights off the small army of people who come to take her back. It is so refreshing to be able to see the antagonist and know who is who and distinguish elements of the action. In addition, the camera movement is beautiful and very commandable indeed. It made it more obvious though how much more believable and enjoyable it would have been if her fights were more water-powered. It confirmed a better subplot in which she would have been the one who started her son. This would have also created a real bond between son and mother other than just the boringly expected link between two people because one of them carried them for 9 months. Being snapped as she nurtures him would have created a more interesting connection and a more exploitable mystic bond.
- The project was extremely ambitious and does suffer from it in that the multiple plots are disconnected and aimless. However, hat off to director James Wan for carrying it out and completing this spectacle-filled movie. I can not emphasise enough what a stronger plot and dialog will bring to this. We really need Arthur Curry to discover more of his power and grow into more than his punches, and the whole film to dive deeper than its superficial wonder. There is the absolute opportunity, beyond the ambition of visual wonder to make the sequel a truly epic and deeply grasping superhero movie.
Of course, the movie should not be scrapped, and it certainly should not be rebooted (yet). However, its financial success should NOT blind the people involved to its many avoidable faults.
I wanted to care about Arthur not because he was played Momoa, fun and funny. I wished to root for him, not because he was scripted the hero and main character. I yearned to relate to him beyond his mummy issues. I wanted to see the origin story of someone becoming Aqua Man, neither a king nor a ruler, but a defender of the people, by gut feeling not destiny, by preference not duty.
At its worst the films gives too many gaps to fill and a little bit of a snooze fest. At its best, it reflects the potential it never achieves. Yet, I would watch a second one, hoping that lessons have been learned. In the end, the question to cannot help thinking in the end that it is not the writers or the cheer enourmousness of this project that contributes to the miscommunication that created a disconnected yet aesthetically pleasing movie that favoured looks over substance. Because of that, it gets a 6 out of 10 for me.