With the exception of Patty Jenkins’ box office hit, Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. have been struggling to make their superhero cinematic universe – the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), or Worlds of DC – take flight. Despite enjoying commercial successes for the most part, the DCEU has struggled to win over the hearts of critics, oscillating between dark and brooding seriousness, neon-injected edginess and questionable takes on iconic characters in equal measure. One only has to look into the sheer number of films rumoured to be in development over at DC, not to mention those that were announced (some with release dates) that have either been postponed or scrapped altogether, to get an idea of how chaotic it must be over in the DC camp. However, with Walter Hamada (the producer behind The Conjuring shared universe) now the President of DC Films, and several new standalone films on the horizon (Shazam!, Joker, Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984) perhaps their comeback can now begin.
This brings us to James Wan’s Aquaman, one of the few survivors of DC’s original slate of films announced back in 2014. Aquaman follows Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman, the half-human, half-Atlantean heir to the throne of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, as he works to prevent his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), from uniting the seven underwater kingdoms against the surface world. With help from hydro-kinetic princess Mera (Amber Heard) and royal counsellor, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Arthur must seek out the legendary Trident of Atlan and embrace his destiny as both king and hero.
Despite appearing in last year’s Justice League, I didn’t find Jason Momoa’s Aquaman overly memorable as Zack Snyder and/or Joss Whedon’s hard-drinking, surly take on the character, with him getting lost in the middling sea (pun definitely intended) of that film. In Aquaman though, Momoa is given some room to breathe and take charge of his own standalone franchise, giving us a charismatic superhero-meets-surfer-bro that happily leans into the goofiness that has been weaved throughout the film. Momoa also manages to bring the seriousness (not Batman v Superman serious though) when necessary, and I found a lot of his interplay with Patrick Wilson’s Orm working quite well. The film’s narrative benefits greatly from the few moments that Momoa and Wilson get to dig into their characters’ shared history, but unfortunately I found that this more dramatic side to the film was left unexplored. This can also be said for the film’s villains, Orm/Ocean Master and David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II); in the case of the former, Wilson’s portrayal of Orm brings out the best in the film’s dramatic moments, but also its sillier ones, with Wilson devouring the scenery he’s in and making the best of the film’s often-clichéd dialogue. Likewise, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II shows promise as Aquaman’s iconic archenemy, Black Manta, but his backstory and subsequent development feel shoehorned into an already-bloated film.
Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe were fine in their roles, but may have fallen victim to the film’s script, coming across as somewhere between vaguely interesting and generic, as they are used deliver a large portion of the film’s exposition. Fortunately, Heard avoids being locked into a generic love interest role, getting plenty of opportunities to kick arse in the film’s action sequences. This is especially highlighted whenever she gets to use her character’s hydro-kinetic powers in different and interesting ways, with a moment during a second act action sequence standing out for me. Similarly, Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison do well as Arthur’s parents, Atlanna and Thomas Curry, with the former also showing off her action chops early on in the film. Like Kidman, Morrison doesn’t get a huge amount to do in the film, but I particularly enjoyed a bar scene early in the film that emphasised not just the father-son bond between Thomas and Arthur, but also their heritage. Following Jason Momoa’s recent red carpet haka, I was very pleased to see the film embrace Morrison and Momoa’s respective Maori and Polynesian heritage, with the film including a hongi between them, and Momoa’s Aquaman wielding a trident similarly to a taiaha. Considering this was one of the things that first sold me on Momoa’s casting as Aquaman, I can’t wait to see if and how they can incorporate these cultural elements in future appearances of these character(s).
As alluded to before, the script is where the film noticeably falls flat, offering a convoluted, globe-trotting adventure which, while fun and entertaining, often feels disjointed and awkwardly cobbled together. This, at times, makes Aquaman feel like several different films competing to be the main act, with the narrative being dragged along towards the film’s legendary Trident/MacGuffin. This hurts the arcs of the characters within the film; while it’s definitely Arthur’s show, he is given no real choice in the matter, despite his obvious and understandable reluctance to become involved in Atlantis’ affairs. Furthermore, because the film is trying so hard to get to the finish line, whilst veering off-course to try and develop the film’s sub-plots, the secondary characters’ development are all largely weakened, leading to predominantly interesting, but underdeveloped characters. For example, Mera and Orm have a history together, and yet this is never properly expanded upon, save for some telling looks here and there. Another key example would be the development of Black Manta who serves as the film’s secondary antagonist, receiving what, on paper, would be a solid backstory that shapes the relationship between villain and hero, developing them both on tandem, possibly over several films. However, as I mentioned earlier, this is shoehorned in, largely feeling like he was put there for any potential future appearances and for one particularly entertaining action sequence. In addition, the film’s humour falls flat and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, it comes across as dated. Likewise, Momoa and Heard’s chemistry is certainly lacking, with the film’s romantic sub-plots feeling like they are there for the sake of it, as opposed to being a natural development.
Coming back to the action though – wow, James Wan clearly knows his stuff. It’s in the action and cinematography that Wan’s direction and clear passion for the film and its source material shines brightest, with each action sequence carrying the story along, developing the characters, all while being thoroughly entertaining. None of these sequences felt forced and leave you wanting more, which Wan is only too happy to provide. Wide shots, long takes and swooping camera movements are the name of the game, being held up all the while by some fantastic stunt-work and choreography. Wan seems to gleefully play with the physics of the underwater action, with the film’s bombastic third act manages to stop just short of becoming excessive, offering a battle sequence that I would compare to the best of The Lord of the Rings films. Visually, Aquaman is stunning, with the CGI holding up wonderfully, unlike some previous entries into the DCEU (notably several third acts); Atlantis and its technology, different peoples and creatures are all marvellously brought to life, bringing a variety of colour to the DCEU, while managing to avoid the pitfalls of Suicide Squad’s neon-after-the-fact. A particular standout for me was a sequence involving the Trench, during which Wan’s horror chops from his work on the likes of Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring looming over proceedings, bringing the necessary amount of dread. Finally, the score is good, for the most part, although moments of the soundtrack (*cough* Pitbull *cough*) and a nagging guitar lick, that showed up whenever Momoa looked over his shoulder, proved cringy and laughable, to me. Admittedly though, this does tend to add to the goofiness of the film and overall, it generally works to Aquaman’s benefit.
Assuming a sequel is greenlit and Wan gets to take the reins again, I can’t wait to see how he improves upon his work here. Aquaman is definitely a crowd-pleaser that lives up to a lot of its potential, and unlike several of its predecessors (with the exception of Wonder Woman), there should be something for everyone in this. I would highly recommend this film to anyone wanting some action, spectacle, fantastic visuals and/or laser-sharks in their life.