Aquaman is a complicated movie. Literally. Its overly complex plot weighs down what otherwise might be an incredibly charming and action-packed film. Like its namesake, it’s also a weird hybrid — not of human and Atlantean, but of what is going to appeal to audiences on both sides of the Pacific. That means spectacular action sequences made for the lowest common denominator between the American heartland and the Chinese mainland. It’s destined to make half a billion dollars — and deservedly so — but more cynical and choosy audiences should maybe gravitate to other films in the crowded holiday-season-cinemascape that includes both Spider-Man and Bumblebee. Despite all of that, this is easily the second best film of the DC Extended Universe. That’s not necessarily a compliment.
The film is charming, and we should pause for one moment to sit with that. An Aquaman movie is actually kind of cool. Yes– Aquaman. The charm here lies with stars Jason Momoa and Amber Heard. Momoa is having a lot of fun here, and embraces the film’s camp and hokeyness. He also sells it, helping most audience members swim along with the current. It also doesn’t hurt that in parts of the film he has his shirt off. In an opening scene (shown in the trailers) when he enters a submarine and asks, dripping with ocean water, “Permission to come aboard?” there was an audible gasp and a “Oh, Lordy, yes. Anytime!” in response from the seat behind me. The equal-opportunity-cheesecake here is pretty fun, but does beg a question. . . why does Momoa need to have a shirt on in any of the scenes? (Inquiring minds want to know.)
Heard is the salt and spice to Momoa’s sweetness. Unfortunately relegated to a lot of exposition, having to teach Arthur Curry (and us the audience) about things like Atlantean politics and the overly labyrinthine plot, she has to do more work than anyone else in the cast, but she does it well. And, she does it all while in the most ridiculous outfit and fake-looking wig possible, which is also impressive. Also unfortunately, she and Momoa get set up in the trope of the bickering-will-they-or-won’t-they couple. The romantic payoff in Act III is telegraphed way off, and is also strangely unearned. Despite being weighed down with all of this, Heard actually does a really great job. But so much of her potential is wasted.
But then there’s the villains. Patrick Wilson is serviceable as the angry King Orm / Ocean Master, but there’s not much more to him than he really, really wants that Atlantean throne. It’s Shakespearean, but sorta dumbed down to a lowest common denominator of the big superhero blockbuster.
And then you have Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whom you could literally erase from the movie and solve a third of its problems. It’s not that the character is bad — he’s actually really cool looking fully decked out with that crazy helmet and shooting lasers from his eyes. It’s just that in a film this complicated, we didn’t need a second villain, and all he does is pad an already overstuffed film.
And can we talk for a second about the scene where he’s building his helmet and Depeche Mode’s “It’s No Good” is playing? What is he, me freshman year crying about my girlfriend breaking up with me? The song, even this new remix, is twenty years out of the zeitgeist and sticks out even worse than if Pitbull sampled Toto’s Africa and put it in the movie to signify they were in the Sahara desert. Oh wait. . .
It’s these kind of schlocky choices that make this movie more the equivalent of cotton candy than anything more substantive. But, that’s also what makes it a sort of great popcorn movie.
Most of the other DCEU movies sort of falter in their third acts with a big brawl against the big bad. In this one, we get our final showdown, but it takes place against the backdrop of an epic underwater battle that takes advantage of the sci-fi epic setting where you can do anything underwater. This is Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Avatar, complete with sea monsters, battle seahorses, and giant underwater ships firing lasers. It’s a little bit silly, but it’s a lot of fun.
It’s that sense of fun that is this movie’s saving grace. Yes, it’s overstuffed, overwrought, and overlong. But it’s essentially director James Wan doing what he has done previously in directing Fast and Furious, Saw, or The Conjuring movies. Ridiculous, over-the-top action somehow works as long as you don’t take it too seriously and let your stars chew up all the scenery they can. But this time– it’s under the sea!
Just like previous films this year like The Meg or Skyscraper, there are very clearly some things here designed for the Asian movie-going audience. Luckily, many of those things are the same things demanded by middlebrow American audiences as they shovel popcorn down their gullets by the buttery fistfuls. Hence, lowest common denominator.
That still makes it one of the best films of the DCEU. While it doesn’t hold a candle to Wonder Woman, at least it feels like these characters are able to have some fun and not be so dark and brooding all the time. Let’s hope they continue that sense of fun into next year’s Shazaam! and our DC characters get some of the movies they deserve.
3 out of 5 stars