I was way off in my prediction last year that Aquaman, starring Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa, would be a disaster. In fact, it’s made around $1 billion worldwide. That’s one billion dollars. So what do I know? Nothing. I don’t even think my prediction was based on the trailers, just an opinion that formed after watching Justice League, a movie that I didn’t hate, but didn’t care for either, but when I did catch the trailers, I felt pretty justified in thinking the way I did. Box office bomb waiting to happen. Nope. Again: One Billion Dollars. But like Venom, which has also made a ton of money, receipts don’t equal quality.
Seen mostly as a comically bad character by non comic-book readers, Aquaman is the half human, half Atlantean superhero who talks to fish and other sea life, and helps out the JLA (Justice League of America, just to keep it to the comics for now). When I was younger I didn’t really come to DC Comics until my mid-teens, but I don’t recall Aquaman being that dumb a character at all. When you look at it, the oceans are a pretty big place and there’s a lot of powerful creatures in it – why wouldn’t you want the ability to control them and swim as fast as a torpedo? It seems pretty useful to me, especially considering most of the superheroes are surface dwellers. I’m thinking the character’s notoriety is mostly based on the silly cartoons of the 70s that found new life as ironic GIFs on the internet. In response to Aquaman getting no props in the fan world, DC revitalized him, made him a bad ass with a harpoon hook instead of a missing hand, so the DC cinematic universe has (probably rightly) turned away from the whitebread, blonde guy in the orange shirt to Jason Momoa, who looks more like he should be squaring off in the WWF than swimming with the fishes. It pains me to say that he’s the only thing in the movie that keeps it watchable – another similarity to Venom.
The movie is overplotted, but don’t take that to mean it’s a plot that I found so clever and complex I couldn’t follow it, just that there are too many plot points covering too little actual story, the bulk of which is all stuff you’ve seen before in the Marvel movies. In fact, I might as well call it what it is: Thor meets Black Panther. Following a prolonged, mostly drama free “origin story” (he was born, not made), the story fast forwards however long it takes to show Arthur Curry in his mid-thirties. He’s – well, I’m not exactly sure what he does, other than drink and do superhero stuff. The movie takes place while the events of Justice League are still a recent memory, and involve a plan by some of the undersea people to rise up against the nasty polluting, murdering surface world. Not everyone is on board with the plan, including Princess Nera, played by Amber Heard in a Princess Ariel wig. She seeks the help of Arthur, who is, by birthright, the one true king. I started drifting away from the movie here. It’s revealed in a couple of flashbacks that not only was Curry well known to the Atlanteans, but the king’s vizier (Willem Dafoe) had been sneaking up to the surface to train him – yet zero attempts were made by anyone to install him as their king, ever. Maybe there was some reason why, but if there was it got lost in the massive amount of momentum killing exposition that fills the entire first half of the movie. Almost every character’s first scene in the movie brings the plot to a screeching halt so they can tell Arthur things he will need to know. Instead of, y’know, have him finding them out himself through actions. During the first half, the villain Black Manta is introduced as a seafaring pirate – this scene was awful, and I was kind of amazed at the characterization. He’s established as an asshole who robs ships and subs and kills people, yet when encountering Aquaman there’s a bizarre attempt to make him appear sympathetic AND make Aquaman the asshole. I have no idea what the writers were thinking here, and can only imagine these scenes were hastily reshot because of Michael B Jordan’s well written Killmonger from Black Panther. The result is abysmal. Yahya Abdul-Mateen is no Michael Jordan, but the character is written so horribly that even the former couldn’t have redeemed it. And throughout, almost every scene featuring this guy feels like it was shot separately and tossed into the movie at the last minute – almost nothing that happens in these scenes affects the main plot of the movie, they just seem like those annoying side quests you complete in games to get closer to 100% completion. In addition to this, the final Black Manta suit is a shitty looking design, and when the inevitable fight between he and Aquaman happens, it’s filmed so poorly that it looks like our hero is fighting a Power Rangers version of Brundlefly!
And of the main plot, this is where Thor meets Black Panther comes in. Arthur’s half-brother is the king, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson) who’s about as threatening as Patrick Wilson can be, and written with none of the personality that Thor’s half-brother was. He’s simply the guy who’s the king of Atlantis, with seemingly no actual life other than that. With Loki, you got the sense that he pretty much enjoyed whatever stuff he did – Marius doesn’t seem to do anything other than bluster about stuff a lot. If he ever feared that his brother might one day try to usurp him, why not send an Atlantean Death Squad to the surface to make sure it never happens? Actions speak louder than words, and words are all Marius has got. And come on – Ocean Master? That doesn’t even work in the comics!
Speaking of plot inconsistencies, I was really bugged by the massive scale of the story, and Aquaman’s place in it. We’re told time and again that Atlantis invading the surface world is a big deal! Of course it is, it could be the end of times for the billions who live there. Yet nobody asks Curry to get in touch with his Justice League buddies. This is spectacularly lazy writing. If nothing else, while the story is another variation of The One trope, it’s also a coming of age story too, and not everyone in the story believes 100% that Arthur can step up to the plate, so why not let the Atlanteans ask him to contact the League and have him refuse because this is something he needs to do to prove to himself he’s worthy? Hubris would have gone well with the other traits Arthur was imbued with, and it would have taken just one lousy line of dialogue.
I was tired of the movie early on, and the generic story that I’d already seen before didn’t help. It’s hard to be engaged in a movie that’s essentially just once set piece after another, peopled with generic character types who are only there to service the plot. Momoa is engaging and likable, but the movie only capitalizes on that a couple of times. I could have done without the romantic angle too – Heard is wooden and I didn’t really feel the chemistry between Arthur and Nera that would have added some depth to the story. In addition to this, there’s some knuckleheaded directorial misdirection involving Willem Dafoe’s character, but it could be a big spoiler so I won’t go there. Suffice it to say that even if something that should have happened would have been predictable, it would have been a lot better than how Act 3 played out. When it never happened, I felt the dull thud of the plot hitting the floor. The one time it could have been interesting never materialized, and the movie just kind of fizzled out for me. I suppose a lot of moviegoers would have been happy with the climactic battle, but I wasn’t – two massive armies rushing headlong towards each other? Yeah, I’ve seen that too many times before – with Avengers: Infinity War being the most recent one.
So where does Aquaman go from here? In his first movie out of the gate he saves the world, which is symptomatic of the sheer lack of imagination that’s falling into these movies. Did an Aquaman movie need the stakes to be THAT high, when a smaller, more personal movie would have highlighted Momoa’s engaging personality better? I’m pretty tired of the scope of movies in the superhero genre. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Without a decent script, it’s like a drawing on a balloon that fades as you blow it up.
© 2019, Andrew Hope
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