Aquaman is actually pretty good…
I wasn’t excited to see Aquaman. Having avoided DC films outside of Wonderwoman since I was burned by Batman VS Superman, I was worried that they would never do away with the bad decisions hanging over from Zack Snyder’s films. However, I was incredibly surprised to find that Aquaman is actually an extremely fun film. It won’t win any Oscars of course, and it isn’t going to change the way you think about film, but it’s a damn entertaining romp. Directed by James Wan and starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, this is a film I could just sit back and relax in.
For the record, I am not saying this is a mindless film, although there are certain people making that argument. I don’t think this is a particular dumb or shallow experience, although of course, it is primarily here to entertain. But for me, this film represents another step in the right direction for DC. One of the things I loved about Wonderwoman was that it played to the strengths of the DC brand. One of the key things I love about DC comics is that it is about beings of immense power, god-like figures dealing with human problems. DC is at it’s best when the character’s have to deal with their immense power and responsibility and rise to the occasion. Wonderwoman tries to save people and defeat the god of war throughout her film. Meanwhile in Man of Steel Superman is unthinking enough to move a fight out of a populated area to prevent civilian deaths. In the same way, Aquaman is not about Arthur Curry the human dealing with the human world, and James Wan isn’t interested in trying to copy the dark knight tone that has been hanging off the DCU since it started. Instead he took inspiration from the comics and made an epic adventure about a prince struggling against his cruel brother to become the rightful king. As a fantasy nerd, that appeals to me a lot.
Anyway, looking at the acting, one can argue that it lacks subtlety. Most of the performances are hammy, though earnest. Patrick Wilson is having the time of his life as the younger brother with a chip on his shoulder. His version of Ocean Master has a lot of insecurities that get the better of him. But I enjoy the style. Something all of these actors do is make the scenes feel fun. The acting for me suits the tone of the film. It wouldn’t make sense to make the drama incredibly intense, and the acting all subdued and grounded. That’s how you get tonally inconsistent films like Man of Steel. It wouldn’t work in a story with sentient fish and giant sea monsters. To make this story, I think you need your tongue firmly in your cheek. They cast Dolph Lundgren for goodness sake, they know what they were going for.
Jason Momoa is great to watch. His version of Arthur Curry is a reluctant hero, but one that enjoys the adventure. He isn’t dour, even as he holds resentment against the Atlanteans for supposedly killing his mother. His angst comes out as a rebellious playful attitude and Momoa has enough charisma to pull it off. He has enough gravitas, and knows which moments to play as serious, but also portrays this character as a fun-lover, which is something DC has been sorely missing. Amber Heard is also great as Mera. She plays a strong willed and dangerous character that puts her duty to her people above her own. She and Momoa have decent chemistry and she injects a level of steadfast determination that helps Arthur to start to strive more in his own journey.
But the acting isn’t the highlight for me, it is the visuals. The story and acting on their own would have made a slightly above average film. The pacing is fine and the writers managed to deftly juggle two different villains, which makes for a first in superhero films. But the visuals were smashing. Obviously, there is a lot of CGI, after all, you can’t film underwater the whole time. But the effect is pulled off very well, and the colour and costuming are vibrant and just the right level of silly. The shots are often very beautiful and there are so many moments in the film that I would have been happy to print and put on my wall as posters. Some seemed to come straight out of the comics.
James Wan knows how to direct a fun film and he focuses on giving us many cool action scenes that are a lot more creative than the standard punching that makes up so much of other superhero films. Characters fight with water, characters fight using tridents; they even manage to make the fish telepathy cool, such as when Aquaman literally controls a giant sea monster from deep in the earth. We have an epic underwater battle, and final duel between the protagonist and antagonist. Yes, I know that is a cliche, but it’s such an enjoyable one, that I don’t mind. We have fights in the rooftops of an Italian town, and a gladiatorial battle in an ancient underwater arena. The variety of action goes a long way to prevent it getting boring. There are so many things in this film to keep you entertained.
Coming back to what I said earlier. This film isn’t perfect. It has problems, such as a tendency to phone in some of the dramatic moments, like Arthur’s parents being separated, and while I do like Heard and Momoa’s chemistry, their romance feels rushed. At the end of the day you could say that this film is a bit of a mess. But if it is, it’s a fun, gloriously silly mess. It’s simultaneously epic, campy, fun, light-hearted and visually stunning. It might not be an Oscar worthy film, but I had a great time watching it, and for DC, that is an achievement all on its own.