After Justice League, it seemed like the DCEU were turning over a new leaf, with underdog IP’s getting greenlit like this one and Shazam in the near future. As well as inviting James Wan to direct, with big critical and commercial successes under his belt already, even within high-profile franchises as proved by his success with Furious 7. So knowing all this I remember feeling quite excited for this when it came out, but for one reason or another I never bothered to actually get around to seeing it. Now that I’ve seen it, I think it’s a testament to the DCEU that so far this is my second favourite out of them, and yet I still strongly dislike it…
The story feels incredibly cliche and limp, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), who is half-Atlantean and half-human, is recruited by Amber Heard’s Mera and Willem DaFoe’s Vulko into becoming King of Atlantis and saving the people from entering into a war with the surface world. As expected, Curry is cocky and overconfident in his abilities, having no trouble using his powers successfully in the surface world, but ends up getting beaten by his half brother Orm, played by Patrick Wilson, and narrowly avoids death. Then the film follows his journey of self-discovery and reconciliation after his ego was bruised, which coincidentally takes place alongside the search for a powerful trident that will allow Curry to rule over the oceans. It’s an incredibly simple plot that we’ve seen be done to death in a plethora of superhero films and Aquaman fails to distinguish itself from the expected formula and thus feels completely soulless as a result. There’s a secondary villain in Black Manta that after the opening scene I was really excited to see develop, but after a goofy looking laboratory montage (and I mean really goofy), he’s present in arguably the best sequence in the film and then disappears from the film in the most anti-climactic exit for a villain in a film. I fully expected Black Manta to return for the climax, or even for his “final stage” of battle like you normally see, but Mera and Aquaman move on to the next location and you’re just left with a feeling of disappointment. It’s clear they’re setting up for the sequel, or at least that’s what I’m guessing, but their encounter in this film ends on such a sour note for the audience.
While the story alone would pass for at least mediocre with the right cast, the film is let down by a weak cast. Jason Momoa’s performance is very one-note, he plays the brash and cocky hero well but outside of that his range is limited, so the more emotional and character-driven scenes are left feeling awkward and unnatural. Momoa is far from the worst performance in the film though and there are moments where you can see that he has the potential to expand and grow into the role, and let’s not deny he fits the look of the role to a tee. He absolutely embodies the role and if they are going to continue to make Aquaman films I think it would prove a great advancement for Momoa to test his skills and grow as an actor. In the supporting cast I really didn’t think much of Amber Heard’s performance, it doesn’t help that the chemistry between Heard and Momoa often felt wooden at times, but Heard never really came into herself in the role. I do also think these criticisms against Momoa and Heard are also partially the script’s fault, as the dialogue is tacky and derivative which makes it harder for the actors to embody the roles better. The same is true for the rest of the cast; some are worse than others but even the better members of the cast fall victim to the weakness of the script. The only actor I can confidently say did a good job was Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta, but obviously as I pointed out earlier, his presence in the film is ultimately lacklustre due to the script.
One of the big points of discussion surrounding this film is the overreliance on CGI. Obviously in a film set in an underwater kingdom, CGI effects were expected and pretty much necessary, however there are definitely moments where it becomes gratuitous. James Wan’s dynamic direction helps in a lot of the CGI sequences, the opening fight with Nicole Kidman is a good example of how the stylish effects and camerawork work well in tandem. But by the time we reach the climax of the film, the full-scale fight feels cluttered and the effects are too jarring, filling the screen with an indistuinghising mess of CGI. At least when it works, the array of colours and designs work in the film’s favour, but this means on the flipside when it’s bad, it becomes really bad.
Aquaman is probably the biggest disappointment so far for me as I was looking forward to what I had hoped would have been a step in the right direction for the DCEU. Even worse is that I heard good things upon its release, so upon watching it and finding that it fell short at all the same hurdles as the previous films just with a brighter colour palette. While there’s definitely movement in the right direction for these films, and I would easily argue Aquaman is clearly one of the better films in this franchise, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in the franchise.