This weekend the DCEU expands with Birds of Prey, before then we’re looking at the films that have been released thus far. Next up we dive into Aquaman.
(This review was originally posted under our Column “Teague’s Take” after the release of Aquaman. Teague nailed this, and we consider it our definitive Aquaman review.)
We’ve all heard the various criticisms of Warner Brothers and their unofficially titled DC Extended Universe since the release of 2013’s Man of Steel, the divisive launching point of this roller coaster ride of superhero film adaptations, which some would argue has had too many gut-wrenching drops and not enough stabilizing high points to keep the ride going without someone getting sick. 2017’s Wonder Woman provided a chain-lift for the seemingly broken ride and overall, was a massive success both critically and financially. However, later that year, Justice League debuted, and while it should be stated that it was a stronger entry than the films that proceeded WW, its pacing issues nearly sent audiences careening over the side of the tracks as it twisted and turned along at break-neck speed in order to fulfill the studio’s requirement that it not surpass a two-hour runtime. With the rumors that Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck may not appear in future films, and with all of the criticism that the DCEU has faced (some fair, some not), both Warner Brothers and DC needed a win with James Wan’s Aquaman, which released on December 21st. Does Aquaman have what it takes to keep the ride going? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for in this film. Let’s dive in (pun possibly intended).
At first glance, James Wan seems an odd choice in director, as his directorial works in the past have mostly revolved around the horror genre (Saw, Insidious, Conjuring). Those are all solid films that have spawned some not-so-solid sequels, but Wan made a choice to branch out from horror when he directed 2015’s Furious 7. The “Fast & Furious” franchise has had its hits and misses, but the seventh installment was overall viewed as a success, and much of that was due to the choices that Wan made in regard to the action sequences. A franchise originally about illegal street-racing has essentially transitioned into a superhero franchise in a way with larger-than-life characters, intense action, and super villains. Maybe in that regard, Wan wasn’t such a strange pick to direct Aquaman. Patty Jenkins was a wild-card choice for WW as well, but look how great that turned out. Wan certainly creates some pretty-damn stunning action sequences in Aquaman, and those may be what saves the film, which has its share of issues.
Let’s start with the positives:
I’m not usually one for spectacle in a movie; give me a solid character-driven plot over the glitz and glamour any day. However, I can honestly say that Aquaman is one of the most visually-impressive films I have ever seen. My wife, VP of Operations and Senior Copy Editor for Poor Man Spoilers (swoon), and I watched it in IMAX, and if you’re planning to see the film, trust me… invest the few extra bucks per ticket to do the same. Very few movies that are released in IMAX really warrant the price for admission, but Aquaman is so beautiful to look at (and I don’t mean just Jason Momoa and/or Amber Heard), that you’ll wish you had gone the IMAX route if you don’t. The vividly colorful underwater battles will leave your mouth agape, and the creatures from the deep are the stuff of your childhood imagination brought to life on the big screen. Sure it’s mostly a CGI-fest, but it’s really solid CGI throughout the film (with one exception involving a plasma cannon and a small island). De-aging technology in film has really started to become popular, with films such as Captain America: Civil War and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story both utilizing it recently. However, it’s been distracting in just about every usage I’ve seen. Aquaman’s use of it is no different, but luckily, the scenes involving de-aging are only in the first five minutes, and the film wisely chooses to not dwell on the past.
I’m already hearing other critics and reviewers compare this film to James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that was widely viewed as visually innovative but story-wise, bland and unoriginal. I can agree to an extent, but what sets Aquaman apart is its structure. It doesn’t follow the typical superhero origin story arc, which the film actually comments on at one point with the attitude of “shit happens.” While DCEU has been accused of rushing character-development in order to pump out a super team-up movie to rival Marvel’s Avengers, oddly enough, the fact that we’ve seen Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa: Game of Thrones, Justice League) in another film already and are somewhat familiar with his powers helps Wan’s entry avoid some of the pitfalls of an origin-story film. And because of this, there’s more that the film is able to do creatively. There is so much that happens in the 2h 23min runtime that it never feels like it’s too long. I actually wanted more when the credits started to roll… which is the job of the studio, right? Keep ‘em wanting more. In that regard, mission accomplished.
Now the negatives:
Yes, A LOT happens in this movie. While I enjoyed the hell out of the action and wish I’d gotten popcorn so I could have gobbled it down while watching, unfortunately some of the character and relationship-building is sacrificed in order to make it happen. Arthur and Mera (Amber Heard: The Ward, The Danish Girl) are essentially thrown into action as soon as they have their first set of dialogue, and because of this, it seems a little forced when they have their inevitable kiss towards the end. There is essentially only one sequence featuring very little dialogue depicting them enjoying the sights of Sicily while looking for the next clue on their quest where we, the audience, are supposed to get that they like each other. But as soon as they have their moment to get that same feeling… BOOM!!! EXPLOSIONS AND ACTION AGAIN!!! It isn’t a deal-breaker by any means, but the chemistry between them definitely could have been better.
Also not helping the relationship building is the inconsistent, sometimes campy tone and hit-or-miss humor that comes through in the writing. Honestly, it’s kind of a mess at times. The jokes in this movie are mostly stinkers, and in one scene, Arthur actually does a smell-check on his armpit and reacts with a shudder. This kind of humor ventures beyond the realm of campy and into the jurisdiction of just stupid. Momoa is a beautiful man, but his acting ability is suspect in the works I’ve seen him in when he is required to do more than grunt, flex, or hit someone. No doubt Wan was aware of this and made the choice to roll with the goofy surfer-dude vibe that Momoa has in real-life. While in a scene where Arthur enjoys a few beers with his dad and some biker fan-boys, this direction works and is entertaining to watch, even if the dialogue is a little cheesy. But in more serious moments, either the lack of talent or positive direction is glaring. I also couldn’t figure out what Wan was going for at times tonally, when the film seemed to be taking the ocean political encounters seriously and had a pro-environment message behind it, then had an octopus playing the drums moments later.
If you’re a fan of DC’s dark, gritty films of yore, then you’re going to hate this movie because it is the opposite: bright and campy. If you’re a Marvel purist, you’re likely to say it copies the Marvel formula and is essentially Wet-Thor. Honestly, at this point, DC can’t win with some folks. The thing is though, that’s on you if you’re judging the film with the lens of DC vs Marvel. Just view it as a MOVIE, and see what you think of it. If you like action and aren’t too concerned with character, you’re bound to enjoy this movie. I will also say that despite my issues with the film, I really enjoyed it. It’s a big, beautiful mess of spectacle and questionable choices, and the action-sequences alone are worth the price of admission if that’s your thing. Time will tell if other critics are kind to this movie, but as a rookie first-time film reviewer, it has my stamp of approval—and I’m a picky bitch. Ask anyone.
Aquaman is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital.
Be sure to keep following us throughout the week as we look at the DCEU leading up to this weekend’s release of Birds of Prey.