The most amusing thing about Aquaman is that DC/WB wouldn’t consciously even make this film anymore; so dramatic has their change of tune been since when it was initially being put together and now. Well into production before the ‘misstep’ of Batman v Superman turned into the full financial face-plant of Justice League, the only reason we’re even really getting this is because it was already shot before the Super Friends embarrassed themselves at the box office and DC went into lockdown to figure out what to do with their cinematic universe.
And so it has come to pass that a major studio has spent an eye-watering amount of money on a tent-pole Aquaman adaptation; a prospect so long joked about that it was a recurring gag on a popular sitcom. 80s wrestling action-figure come to life and renowned hater of books, Jason Momoa reprises his role as Arthur Curry, aka, the Man of Aqua. Born of two worlds and required to reconcile them before an all-out war engulfs both the land and sea, Aquaman and Mera (Amber Heard) battle to stop his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) from reaping revenge on the surface world for polluting the oceans.
The primary tension here is that there are two quite different films vying for supremacy but rather than make a lean ninety-minute film from either, they’ve opted to make both at once and dump the bloated runtime on audience’s laps. The Aquaman/Mera plot feels like an (impossibly expensive-looking) second-rate Indiana Jones knock-off that’s escaped straight from the late 90s and should by rights be starring Brendan Fraser.
Meanwhile the Orm plot is trying altogether too hard to be a straight-faced ‘Game of Thrones but underwater’ epic. Willlem Dafoe is in far more of this film than you’d expect and he’s utterly wasted because they use him like he’s in a real film and not one where an octopus plays the bongos during a dramatic fight for the throne. If they’d had any sense, Dafoe and Wilson would be trying to out-chew the scenery on each other.
This whiplash of styles means that the film rarely gets to settle into one speed or the other. Individual scenes of Wilson, Dafoe and Dolph Lundgren standing around – and not one of them screaming or cackling– having their little war councils can be engaging until we smash back into the family film where Momoa and Heard heroically try to convince us they have chemistry via the medium of flat pop culture references.
Meanwhile our leads little treasure hunt plot can never quite be fun because just as you get into the rhythm of it, the ominous brass starts back up and we’ve returned to Orm. There’s an extended sequence in Sicily where the film is just focused on Arthur and Mera and it’s probably the best paced, most tonally settled and outright enjoyable chunk of the film, largely because it (briefly) sticks with being one kind of film.
This all culminates in a preposterously massive final battle that undeniably has the whiff of Star Wars prequel excess to it but which, for the most part, beats you sufficiently into submission and becomes enjoyable. Fair warning though, said sequence in IMAX 3D did succeed in giving me a literal headache so take that praise with an asterisk. Still, it is sheer spectacle in the truest sense and almost worth watching just for that, including Julie Andrews’ cameo as what appears to be The Cloverfield Monster.
Overall it’s not hard to praise the largely quite imaginative visuals, which are clean and colourful and provide a good sense of scale. There’s an especially nice Thor: Ragnarok-esque vehicle chase through Atlantis, full of a heavy synth score and blinding neon which is an enjoyable aural-visual treat. It’s well known that Wan is a solid action director and he doesn’t falter here. The more grounded chases and fights work especially well, with an early scene of Nicole Kidman massacring a bunch of goons with a trident being unexpectedly thrilling in its oddness and weighty violence.
On the other end of the spectrum from the visuals however is the script which is at best a cliché and cringe-riddled stinker. The dialogue being pants wouldn’t be so big of a deal if it weren’t being played so straight. It’s begging for a more overwrought and campy film to make it fun to laugh with rather than to boringly scoff at.
Credit where it’s due, they have for the most part reigned in instances of Momoa’s Momoa-ness (the relentless screaming, the frat-boy assholery, the “my man!” etc), but some groaning examples slip through and stagnate before you on screen in all their embarrassing 90s glory – usually accompanied by an equally toe-curling electric guitar sting on the soundtrack to really complete the full body cringe. This is mostly relegated to act one, mercifully.
Even outside of the dialogue though, the writing is barely passable. It’s a bare bones ‘chosen one’ plot with some little caveats to push out the runtime. Arthur’s seemingly limitless invincibility sucks any tension out of the otherwise quite well-staged action scenes and honestly, it’s not entirely easy to get on board with him when he’s such a one-note, arrogant dick while the film’s two villains actually have much more relatable and, in Ocean Master’s case particularly, outright laudable motivations. While he’s a little blood thirsty in his pursuit of his environmentalism, the film never plays his urge to want pollution ended as anything but sincere. Meanwhile Aquaman comes across like one of those people who’d petition against wind-farms because they’d ruin the view from his kitchen.
This is the kind of straight forward, old fashioned superhero film DC/WB should have been making back at the start and that it’s taken them this long to get here, is pretty damning. In a year that’s brought so many more interesting and modern-looking entries into this genre, this is going to struggle to leave an impact by being ‘perfectly fine’. It’ll put your arse to sleep and could well give you a headache but it’s a testament to its otherwise okay-ness that those aren’t outright deal-breakers.