Want to feel old? Entourage spending its entire second season on a joke about how dumb spending blockbuster-millions on an Aquaman movie was in 2005. That was 13 years ago.
Want to feel even older? Entourage existed, at one point, and was somewhat popular and highly regarded for a hot second.
By any reasonable traditional metric, Aquaman should be a complete disaster: Its plot is needlessly overcomplicated while its storyline is embarrassingly simplistic, the thematic throughline running between the two is utterly confused as to what it seems to think it’s about, the actual narrative doesn’t make a lick of sense and the whole of it has to be carried by Jason Momoa who, as an actor is… a very strong swimmer with a ton of charisma. It has about five Lord of The Rings, three The Mummies and a Dune’s worth of backstory and mythology, all to set up a plot that breaks down to “bad man want do thing, find magic weapon – stop him!,” changes tone and speed almost at random between “Very Expensive Pirate Movie,” “Very Expensive Kamen Rider Movie,” “Very Expensive Stephen Chow Comedy,” “Bizarrely Self-Serious and also Very Expensive Underwater Masters of The Universe complete with Dolph Lundgren For Some Reason,” “Very Expensive Gender-Flipped Little Mermaid” “Even More Expensive Star Wars Prequel” but mostly settles on trying to smash Moana, Thor and “Black Panther but where Killmonger is the good guy” (“Fishmonger?”) into one thing – but actually plays significantly less coherently than any of that would indicate that it does.
It’s the sort of movie where the Very Dramatic Buildup to the one-on-one brother against brother gladiatorial battle to the death for the fate of everything… cuts away to make sure that you know the “march to the stadium” war-drums are being played by giant octopus. Where multiple award-winning actors of stage and screen repeat (very) long paragraphs of “as you know, BUT, for the benefit of the audience…” dialogue in shiny armor while riding CGI sharks. Where scenes of domestic idle are interrupted by Nicole Kidman fighting goons in plastic Power Ranger armor with a giant fork. No less than two characters demonstrate their powers by punching submarines. Villains wield rifles that convert water into lasers as primary weapons. The kind of movie where you find yourself gradually, during a very important scene: “Okay, so… are those jellyfish just like holding up her big elaborate princess dress or – oh. Oh, okay, she’s, just… wearing a giant jellyfish… possible several… shaped like a dress. Alright.”
For the record, our story goes something like this: “The Seven Seas” – which actually used to be ancient kingdoms on land that Did a Hubris, sank underwater and evolved into fish-people, some of whom just look like regular people but underwater whereas others are more like mermaids, crab-people, etc – are being manipulated into uniting under the evil Atlantean King Orm (Patrick Wilson) into uniting in a war against the surface because pollution. Pirate-fighting superhero and sometime Justice Leaguer Aquaman, also first born son of Orm’s mother (Nicole Kidman) and a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), can stop this; but only if he can work through his resentment over being rejected by the elitist and (implied) more-than-sort-of-racist Atlanteans, can stop the war – but only if he and Orm’s would-be bride Mera (Amber Heard) can undertake a quest and find the magical Trident that will mark him as the One True King of Atlantis and prevent Orm from becoming “The Ocean Master.” However, because Aquaman is kind of dumb and impulsively tries to solve things with his fists first, Orm becomes aware of their quest and sends Aquaman-hating high-tech pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to hunt them down.
And yet, being this much of an absurd, ridiculous, occasionally very dumb mess of a thing kind of works for it, both in a “go big or go home” way and in a more general “Well, what the hell else were they supposed to do with it – it’s AQUAMAN?” way. The best comparison I can really think of is the 80s version of Flash Gordon, in that they both represent attempts to keep as much of the weird old-fashioned pop-art nonsense aspect of a long-in-the-tooth property preserved as possible while also totally reinventing the main character for a present-day sensibility; i.e. Momoa’s Aquaman (aka “Arthur Curry”) is ostensibly a regular down-to-Earth biker-surfer “let’s pound some beers” bro who wants no part of the royal lineage his half-Atlantean heritage entitles him to but must reluctantly embrace in his own way to stop King Orm from doing The Badness.
It’s a decent enough angle, and probably the best workaround for the franchise being saddled with having to start from Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon’s seemingly now-aborted Justice League/DCEU conception of the character and Momoa being something of a limited but enthusiastic instrument as a performer; and a lot of the time it works in his favor. Other times (too many, truth be told) it ends up undercut by jarring changes in tone and style that mostly feel like the amount of pre-visualization involved in a movie with so many absurdly massive CGI sequences resulted in things being done too much out of order without communication: Sometimes Arthur is a funny dumb guy who makes impulsive decisions to move the plot one way, other times he’s really smart and knows how to solve puzzles about obscure ancient historical figures because THAT needs to happen, that kind of thing.
It’s also (weirdly, for a project with so much swing-for-the-fences confidence otherwise) low-key “insecure” about its source material, like a lot of it was clearly built around pushing back against the jokes people usually tell about Aquaman: “Oh, you think talking to fish is a dumb power? We’re gonna have him talk to BADASS fish! You think swimming isn’t cool? He’s gonna swim like a BADASS! Yeah, he rides a seahorse – he rides the SHIT OUT OF IT!!!” Which is… a choice, but at least Momoa seems game for it and they wisely give Amber Heard a lot more to do than tag along and be exasperated at his antics.
When the plot and the character are leaning hard on the personal stuff about him resenting this magical kingdom of shiny aristocrat fish-people who think they’re better than him and all the implicit thematic stuff that carries with it, he and the film are at their best dramatically. When it’s about anything else… well, they’re not, and it’s back to relying on the spectacle, which is still pretty spectacular. There’s nothing in here that packs the instantly-iconic “people will remember this for a long time” wallop or thematic ressonnance of the beach battle or No Man’s Land sequence from Wonder Woman, but on balance Aquaman is far and away the best looking DC movie and most unabashedly unashamed of itself (at least visually) comic book movie in a long time – well, live-action, anyway, obviously Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is eating everyone else’s lunch in that department.
But Aquaman works, even when it doesn’t. It’s incredibly well-directed by James Wan so it all looks gorgeous and the action is coherent and engaging, Momoa has charisma to burn, the film mostly knows what to do with him (i.e. always have Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Morrison, Wilson or someone else with significantly greater range in the scene to do the heavier lifting.) And even if it’s all patently absurd and frequently stupid – magic water-lasers and giant sea monsters and fish people and seven different overdesigned high-tech fish-people cities, gigantic undersea dogfights between submarines and people riding armored seahorses are and all – it’s fearlessly nutty in the way this stuff should be. If they do another one and find a story worth telling in this world (or just more than two notes for Momoa to play as Aquaman himself) they might really have something.
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