DC Comics’ latest superhero blockbuster, Aquaman, made a splash in theaters this past weekend. This marks the sixth movie in the DCEU, which has ultimately been a rocky cinematic universe due to its somewhat poor foundation. It has had very low points like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but extremely high points like Wonder Woman. It seems as though their characters’ standalone movies are DC’s strengths, which bodes well for Aquaman. However, I’d rather look at this on its own and not as just a smaller part of a movie universe. Let’s dive deep and take a look at if Aquaman sinks or swims in the character’s first standalone live-action movie. Be cautious, spoilers may lurk ahead.
In a world where there is seemingly always a superhero movie in theaters, Aquaman stands out as one of the most unique. At times, it feels more like a fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings and other times it feels like a medieval adventure like that of the Knights of the Round Table. It’s not just a typical origin story about a hero learning to use their powers and saving the world from an evil-doer. If anything, it’s an almost Shakespearean tale about an heir to the throne of a kingdom reluctantly becoming a king to stop the current ruler from starting a war.
For a normal-length, standalone action blockbuster, a great amount of world-building invites the viewer in to a realm where the city of Atlantis is more than just a myth. Learning about the different kingdoms of Atlantis, seeing their varying political views, and witnessing how Atlantis was before it sank and how the Atlanteans evolved after being forced to the bottom of the ocean was all intriguing and exciting.
Jason Momoa shined as the titular character. He was more of a “bad boy” than how Aquaman is portrayed in the comics, but he clearly had a lot of fun in the role and is passionate about playing him. His chemistry with Amber Heard as Mera as they banter and bicker is a lot of fun and creates some greatly amusing moments. Arthur’s (Aquaman) parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison, were both acted with such heart, and even though they’re side characters, they have you fighting for their romance to succeed as much as the film’s leads.
Both of the film’s villains, Ocean Master and Black Manta, were well acted by Patrick Wilson and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Ocean Master’s motives of believing he’s the rightful heir to Atlantis’s throne since Arthur is a half-breed and wanting revenge on the surface world for their constant pollution of the ocean both add to the Shakespearean vibe and are actually somewhat justified, making him a particularly interesting villain. Black Manta was a fun addition, having some of the coolest moments in the action scenes and having an exciting revenge story arc.
Most love interests in movies tend to be nothing but plot devices for the protagonist. Mera, however, felt like her own, fleshed out character. If anything, she could easily stand on her own as a superhero.
Director James Wan certainly showed off his talents with this project. The visuals were incredible. With a movie that’d have to have a lot of underwater scenes, it could have been dark, foggy, and washed out for much of it, but Wan strayed far away from this issue. Colors still popped and the underwater land of Atlantis truly felt like a magical place to transport the viewer. He showed once again he is a master of modern horror with one of my favorite scenes involving the terrifying creatures of the Trench. Wan also proved he can handle on-screen action well. The fight in Sicily was exciting and flowed well from the combat between Aquaman and Black Manta to the combat between Mera and the Atlantean Elite. He also ensured that the setting mattered here other than just being a pretty background. The closeness of the buildings, the stone tile rooftops, and the stone statues and artwork all played a part in the fight. The action was revved up in the explosive third act featuring a gigantic battle like that of an underwater Battle of Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings. The way Wan followed the action in this war scene was especially impressive, tracking each smaller battle happening in the chaos.
The character development was top-notch. Not only did the protagonist learn the obvious lessons of responsibility and putting others before him, but Mera had her own arc of learning to see the beauty the land has to offer past all the issues she already knew about. Even the Atlanteans developed as one big collective character, discovering that doing the right thing is better than their old rules.
One of my favorite details in this movie is that a superhero actually took the time to save citizens from harm. Despite also trying to stop a villain, Aquaman actually made sure that nearby citizens got away from the danger. I feel as though protecting people is the first job of superheroes and fighting evil-doers is second. However, it’s rare these days to actually see a movie featuring a superhero protecting civilians from danger, as the focus is typically just on the hero versus the villain. It was certainly pleasant to see for a change.
Even though the world-building was necessary and helped the viewer experience this magical undersea world, it took up a lot of time. It needed so much time that other things in the film should have been shaved off to be used in future sequels. Perhaps Black Manta’s origin and arc could have been saved for the next movie so that more time could’ve been devoted to Ocean Master, the various Atlantean kingdoms, and potentially more about their advanced technology. Either way, it was a lot for a two hour and twenty minute movie, and some of it could have been saved for future films. The amount of needed world building also threw the pacing off for the first half of the movie, but it improved in the second half.
Although the visuals are almost all great, there are a couple of instances of awkward CGI, primarily on faces and hair during some (but not all) of the underwater scenes. I’ve certainly seen worse in other modern superhero or blockbuster movies.
When Mera was first introduced in the movie, she and Arthur have a conversation about how Arthur should go to Atlantis to claim the throne and that he is worthy after defeating Steppenwolf in Justice League. Thankfully this is the only moment that’s weighed down by the overall DCEU. In Justice League, it’s heavily implied that the two already knew each other. I was hoping Aquaman would give us some answers to that, but there still aren’t any, really. I find this a bit frustrating.
The “surprise explosion” trope is heavily overused. Typically there is one instance of an explosion interrupting dialogue or a slower moment in a movie in which the villain menacingly steps through the hole caused by the blast. This happened at least five times throughout Aquaman.
There were a handful of awkward edits and shots that verged on unintentionally silly, like random, unnecessary slow motion or the camera rotating around a subject too much. There was an especially awkward interaction between Black Manta and his father that occurred early on that made me concerned for the tone of the rest of the movie. Luckily, the uncomfortable tone left with that scene. The costume design in the film was terrific and almost entirely matched the comic books, but the scene where Arthur obtains his iconic scale armor is odd. He obtains the trident that he and Mera have been searching for and we see the magic flowing from it. It’s actually a really cool scene. Then, when he steps out wielding the trident, he is also now suddenly wearing the armor. It may have came from the trident magically, which would have been fine if we saw that, but we don’t, leaving it up to the imagination. It all looks cool, but it was a weird, unclear moment for an important scene.
I get that they wanted to wait until that opportune time to reveal Aquaman’s scale armor, but having him in wet jeans is a strange choice. Jeans aren’t exactly the most comfortable thing to swim in, and fighting in wet jeans must have caused some rashes. Couldn’t they at least have given him a wetsuit?
The dialogue was not very impressive. It’s not that it was bad or poorly-written. Most of it was exposition or just unmemorable, other than the fun banter between Arthur and Mera, or Arthur joking around with his father.
There is a character who appears in a couple of small moments here and there who is a vital part of the New 52 Aquaman comics. When he was on screen, it felt like he would become a bigger part of the plot, but they ultimately didn’t do much with him at all. Hopefully they are setting him up now to use him more in a sequel.
James Wan added an amusing cameo fans of the silver age Aquaman comics might enjoy. It may seem a little silly in the movie, but it still works really well. It was quick and subtle, and even if you don’t recognize the character, you’d probably still get a laugh out of the moment.
There’s a song featured in the film that jumped out to me as soon as it began playing. As it started, I excitedly thought it was “Africa” by Toto. However, it was a song titled “Ocean to Ocean” and is performed by Pitbull. It does sample iconic lines and melodies from “Africa,” though, and it sounds amazing. It’s sort of a hip hop version of “Africa.”
Like most modern blockbusters, there is a mid-credits scene. It doesn’t reveal anything special or have any exciting cameos, but it does set up something that could lead to a fun story in the next installment. It also reveals where two of the characters end up after the events of the film. Compared to other mid-credits and end-credits scenes, it’s pretty underwhelming but worth seeing.
The first half of Aquaman jumps around a lot due to exposition and world-building. However, in the second half, once everything is finished being established, it smooths out and becomes something great. The film certainly has its issues, but most of them are minor and don’t affect the movie as a whole. It feels like a fantasy adventure story, making it stand out from other superhero movies. There are some awkward moments, but most of it is a fun ride. Ultimately, Aquaman is an exciting undersea spectacle that needs to be seen.