While it's a step up from the rest of the non-Wonder Woman DCEU, James Wan's take on the aquatic superhero is still full of the franchise's biggest, dumbest problems.
No superhero has such a history of consistent derision as poor ole Aquaman. Often mocked for his complete uselessness on 29% of the Earth, it would take a pretty Herculean feat to make Arthur Curry something more than Robot Chicken joke. Which James Wan and DC do – sort of. Aquaman does the hard work of creating a believable and initially engaging world but falls into the exact same missteps as all prior DC films.
We find our titular fishman Arthur (Jason Momoa) living out a relatively quiet life for someone who recently battled alongside Superman. He lives with his Dad (Temuera Morrison), occasionally fights oceanic crime, and generally bros out with the local populace. All of that comes to a sudden halt when Princess Mera (Amber Heard) arrives from Atlantis to tell Arthur that his power-hungry brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is making a push to become…Ocean Master. Despite the goofy title, it means that if he gains the allegiance of the majority of merfolk kingdoms, then he can begin a war against the surface. The only thing standing in his way is Arthur’s potential claim to the throne.
Aquaman’s greatest superpower is its ridiculous powerhouse of a cast. Momoa brings a genuinely odd charm to Arthur, reinventing the character into a gruff but sweet-natured water bro. After laying the groundwork in Justice League, Momoa continues to build on his uniquely lunkheaded take on the King of the Seven Seas. It is very refreshing to have a superhero that isn’t just a power hunk fighting his way through a world of fodder, but he’s also tuned into (and unafraid to show) his emotions. Aquaman doesn’t fear much, but he’s also not afraid to admit when he is scared. Or sad. Or broken. It really is something wonderful that Arthur is bereft of the toxic masculinity that so often infects these kinds of characters.
Speaking of toxic masculinity, the movie shines the brightest when Princess Mera and Queen Atlanna/Arthur’s mother (Nicole Kidman) are the focus. Kidman is particularly engaging in her sole fight scene; it’s mind boggling that she has yet to be cast in an action vehicle of her own. Heard does a great job bringing a ton of personality to a character type that is usually relegated to looking pretty, falling into danger, and standing back while a dude saves the day. It is a shame, though, that both Heard and Kidman aren’t given more to work with and fall more and more into female action hero archetypes the further the film goes.
In the end, Aquaman both sinks and swims at the hands of James Wan. It feels like there’s two versions of Wan on display: the one based in reality and the one shackled by CGI. Wan’s skill at horror (The Conjuring, Saw) lends itself very well to this brand of hero film: he works best with the Lovecraftian Easter Eggs and hints to some of the best shots of the film. When Wan is given the freedom to let his Eldritch urges flow, he creates a world that’s both beautiful and unnerving. The fight choreography has such an awesome flow as well, displaying a frantic creativity with camera flow that makes the battles of the lighthouse and Sicily some of the best I have seen all year.
But, then the curse of all DC movies hits: the frantic CGI. Zack Snyder’s roided-out vision has been locked into the DCEU-vre, and while at a distance, these shots can be stunning, they are outright nauseating up close. Between the first fight between Arthur and Orm, it gets downright impossible to tell what is even happening. Not to mention the uncanny valley of watching two cartoon versions of Momoa and Wilson fight each other. Sure, CG action is de rigueur for films like these, but even in Aquaman it felt like watching a cartoon than a film based in (fantastical) reality.
What really moves Aquaman from a goofy fun action film to just…well..boring, is the script. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall have crafted a story that seems to make Arthur Curry’s greatest superpower sheer coincidence. If there is a problem for Aquaman to solve, then all he has to do is wait five minutes or think on it for even less. If the nefarious Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has him in his sights, no need to fear! There will always be a wall or statue or large object protecting him for the very first laser blast of doom. Thanks to this, Aquaman’s life or ability to succeed never feel in danger. The script suffers from DC’s biggest issue: their heroes are too perfect. The reason Batman so often stands out in the DC roster is that he has a litany of human weaknesses. The Marvel heroes constantly need to team up since most of them are human and suffer basic human weaknesses. However, instead of getting a tale tension and overcoming great odds, it instead feels like watching someone bang together action figures, knowing that no one in their right mind would let Aquaman lose with consequences. Granted, thousands of merfolk absolutely die, but like all DC films, the lives of those off screen are immediately forgotten.
Aquaman isn’t nearly DC’s worst effort: on a scale of Suicide Squad to Wonder Woman, it fits neatly right in between. There is a solid foundation to build on Arthur Curry and the merfolk mythos he lives within, but this trip to the depths isn’t nearly as engaging as one would hope it to be.
Aquaman swims into theaters Friday, December 21st.