When it comes to the DCEU films, I’ve always had an issue with the discrepancy between the tone Warner Bros. was trying to present and the content they were presenting. With Man of Steel, the film tried to create an overly grounded take on Superman’s story. Krypton looked like the War in Iraq, Supes was a mindless brute who seemingly lacked any kind of direction or intentiveness, and…well Pa Kent’s death wasn’t exactly well-designed (“Wait son! Even though you can move super fast, let me die in this tornado!”). It was a self-important film that tried to emulate WB’s former success with Christopher Nolan’s grounded Dark Knight trilogy.
That tone continued with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that saw Batman as a crazed veteran crime fighter who a little easily was manipulated by Lex Luthor…played by Mark Zuckerberg. Suicide Squad ultimately followed in those footsteps of trying to be dark and crass. Wonder Woman sought to have lighter humor and more designed action but the film was overshadowed by reviews that were skewed due to political bias (To this day, I have not meant one person who thought it deserved the praise it got). And that film’s success led to Justice League getting toned down with heavy reshoots by Joss Whedon.
But none of these films ever felt like their own story. Man of Steel was so heavily designed to emulate The Dark Knight trilogy, BvS was trying too hard to set-up a Justice League film with a dozen storylines, Suicide Squad was just a mess, Wonder Woman might as well have been called Wonder Woman: The First Avenger, and Justice League couldn’t have ripped off The Avengers anymore if it tried. So, imagine my surprise when I saw Aquaman last night and found myself not only enjoying the experience…but being genuinely impressed with the film. Not only is Aquaman the most visually immersive film in the DCEU (Seen as part of a course correction by the WB), but it’s a genuinely exciting and even sometimes emotional tale.
When we last saw half-human/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Played by Jason Momoa), he helped take down Steppenwolf in Justice League. Since then, he has helped people in the ocean, taking on pirates and helping sea life from the wicked crimes of man. But he still refuses to take his place in Atlantis for personal reasons (Revealed pretty early on) and the love for his human father. His desire to remain neutral however is removed when informed by Mera (Played by Amber Heard), princess of another underwater kingdom, that Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Played by Patrick Wilson) is about to start a war with the surface world. Naturally, Arthur won’t stand for this and his duty to humans pushes him to find a mystical Triton that will allow him to assert his royal claim to the throne to usurp Orm.
The film struggles to unite a lot of the plot early on, flipping between at least three or four separate character plotlines. Guided by director James Wan’s solid understanding of plot progression, the ambition of the film’s early promise begins to be met as storylines merge and the film’s endgame starts to take shape. However, the film manages to avoid ever feeling anything less than entertaining thanks to several subsidiary elements of the production.
The cast, for one, know where their characters stand and understand the conflict each of them have. Momoa, while no Daniel Day-Lewis, at least manages to grasp Arthur’s splintered motivations. The carefree, surfer dude that he presented to audiences back in Justice League and, in this film, carrying that tangent into his affection for humanity that drives his motivation as a warrior. His partner-in-crime Mera allows Heard to present her most developed role in her career. An intelligent, albeit boisterous, fighter whose devotion to the sea allow for an interesting interplay between her and Momoa.
They hold the film as the lead duo of characters, but each supporting player offers something worth noting whether it’s Wilson’s sometimes surprising depth as Orm (Which at times is obscured by the almost cliche need to be the big baddie of the film) or Willem Dafoe’s never less-than-his-best performance as Atlantis’ counselor Vulko.
But the big star of this film is the visual effects. Whether you like the characters or not, whether you like the plot or not, the production design of this film is one of the finest for a big budget production with visual effects so engrossing that Wan’s ultimate success here is creating a believable underwater universe. The creatures so complex, the costumes rich in detail and distinction. Under a lesser director and a smaller budget, this film had the big risk of looking like a B-movie. But the effects are on-par if not superior to anything given out in years.
And this universe is enhanced by the mesmerizing score of Rupert Gregson-Williams that gives an appropriate otherworldly feeling to the underwater kingdoms. This works in tandem with the “human songs” that are played as Arthur and Mera cross continents to find the Triton, creating a brilliant contrast.
Aquaman may be a mess at the beginning, but by the end the film has such a built-in climax that the pay-off allows audiences to feel like it’s worth it. Not to mention, this is the most entertaining of the DCEU films by far, choosing not to be as self-serious as Man of Steel or preachy like Wonder Woman. Instead, it’s a film that chooses to offer adventure and action, with enough emotional development to feel these aren’t just thinly constructed stock characters. It’s an old-school adventure that shows that when Warner Bros. allows it’s directors to actually run the film’s narrative, you get something worth viewing. It may be silly, it may start out as a mess, but Aquaman is worth the cinematic experience and that’s an achievement in itself. If James Wan can make a character originally with blonde bangs who wore bright orange and rode a cute seahorse cool…anything is possible for the DCEU.
- Performances (Momoa and Heard)
- Visual Effects
- Action Scenes
- Production Design
- Wan’s Direction
- Messy Plot
- Wilson’s performance as Orm tends to drift into a cliche villain at times.