Released: 26th December
Seen: 26th December
DC has really had something of a bad time with their attempt at a cinematic universe. While the hardcore DC fan base have enjoyed the films so far, with general audiences they’ve been critically panned and have such a horrible reputation that the massive team up movie Justice League is the worst performing film in the franchise. That’s almost impossible to contemplate, the film where every major DC superhero was meant to team up in an event that we have been building too for four movies and it didn’t make as much money as Suicide Squad. The audience is effectively done with what the DC universe is offering now. There were serious talks for a while that the upcoming Flashpoint movie might be used just to try and erase the entire franchise and start again from scratch, it’s not looking good for the DCEU who not only have a failing franchise on their hands that can barely bring them a return on investment, but the franchise is now so far behind the juggernaut MCU that it seems unlikely they’ll ever catch up. For this franchise to still have legs it needs this film to be good. All they had to do was make something that didn’t hurt to watch and they might actually put themselves on the right track… and oh thank god they pulled it off.
Aquaman takes place shortly after the events of Justice League with Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) living it up as a hero, embracing the status that saving the world has given him. He still goes out to do good things like stop pirates taking over a submarine but he’s also more than happy to have a beer with his father Tom (Temuera Morrison) who is still dealing with the loss of Arthur’s mother, who was Atlanna, queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). One day a mermaid warrior princess named Mera (Amber Heard) comes to shore to tell Arthur that he is needed to stop King Orm (Patrick Wilson) before he unites the armies of the seven seas and declares war on the surface. Arthur must now team up with Mera and his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) to go get the legendary Trident of Atlan and use it to thwart Orm’s plans.
I can’t pretend that I walked into this film open minded, much as I would like to say that I feel it’s impossible. I’ve also fallen in with the mainstream crowd when it comes to DC films. I actively dread going because they seem to have decided that they’re going to be the dark counterpart to Marvel and I dreaded this one because, while I felt that Aquaman was one of the good elements to Justice League, I worried that they might not embrace a style of film that would work with that kind of character. I enjoy it so much when I’m wrong because sure enough, they actually made a big over the top fun film that fits with a big fun character. From the first few minutes we can already see the tonal shift for the franchise and it’s welcome. The people in this film might have some bad dialogue and the jokes might be occasional groaners, but I liked them. The dialogue that was bad still managed to get a chuckle just for how corny it could be, the groaner jokes still almost work because of the charming delivery by the main characters.
There’s a descriptive word I didn’t think I would be using for a DCEU character. Charming. The characters in this film are just plain old charming. I liked Arthur, he’s still that jocular frat boy who pounds down a six pack and makes a bawdy joke but will put the beat down on someone who says something that crosses the line. Mera is a delight, she tries her best to stick with tradition but you can tell how much she’s annoyed by how tradition has held her people down. Vulko is just a prime Willem Dafoe performance that rests so heavily on him saying the stupidest things in a dead serious tone and I love it. With great cameos by Randall Park, John Rhys-Davies and Julie Andrews (No, seriously, she plays a sea creature and she’s awesome) the film has a great cast that delivers good performances that even make the bad stuff work. The MVP of the film is easily Nicole Kidman who embraces the material completely and turns in a performance that goes between hilarious to touching to badass. Scenes where Nicole Kidman beats the tar out of a dozen guys in robot suits are some of the highlights of the film and the introduction to her character in the opening scene is a testament to how incredible an actress she truly is. Anyone who can make eating a goldfish into the most charming thing imaginable is a skilled performer.
Action wise, this film has you covered. The big fight scenes are powerful and a joy to watch, glorious battles between bright blue sea creatures and dark red monsters that are surrounded by lava look amazing. The color contrast of orange and blue is a popular one for a reason and they use it well here. It helps the fights by making it easy to follow who is who, even when they’re clearly CGI rag dolls being thrown about at each other. It does get a little annoying that every big battle scene is introduced by an explosion just behind the main characters that blows them off their feet (It seriously happens so many times that it becomes comical) but once the battles begin, they’re well shot and well choreographed and, for the most part, serve the story and help build some good natural tension.
While the film is, on the surface, very light and enjoyable there is also a lot of clever work done to deliver an environmentalism message, at least for the first half of the fim. The entire reason that the main villain of the movie wants to declare war on the surface world is because of how we’ve treated the oceans, it calls out our pollution and abuse of the ocean and makes it clear how much damage we can do. It’s a great message that really helps give the villain of the movie a good reason behind his actions… and then it kind of gets dropped because I guess we have to save that kind of story for the Captain Planet movie. It’s a little bit of a shame because I would’ve really enjoyed it more if they leant into that since it’s a great idea for an ocean-based superhero to have to deal with the fact that he’s trying to protect people who harm the ocean, there would be some real conflict there but we don’t get into it enough for the message to be as impactful as it could be.
What doesn’t work is literally everything involving the character of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who is basically pointless to the plot of the film. At best he’s a distraction, at worst it’s a cheap setup to make him the main villain of the sequel but because he has no use here he just bloats the runtime. He has less purpose in this film than Julie Andrews does, and at least Julie Andrews was an inspired bit of stunt casting. Black Manta could’ve been cut from the film entirely and you would never miss him, he doesn’t actually impact the main plot other than to be a mild irritant for Aquaman in exactly one battle. It’s a shame because the design is awesome, he’s intimidating, there is something about him that could make a great villain but here, he’s a distraction from the actually interesting story about Arthur fighting his brother. Luckily at about the halfway mark, Black Manta is basically forgotten about until the end credits scene where they effectively confirm that he’s going to be in the sequel, but he’s basically a brick wall that the plot collides into at several intervals.
When the film is on the main plot, it really works well. There are moments that can be a little frustrating and the bloat does hurt it (Unless you are adapting a book the size of Lord of the Rings, you do not need to make a 2 and a half hour movie for christ sakes) but this is still the exact kind of film DC needs to make. It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it understands that it’s a comic book movie and therefore can actually be a little over the top. You can put a man the size of Jason Momoa in the bright yellow and green Aquaman suit and it’ll be fine. You can have a drum playing octopus and it’ll be fine. Julie Andrews can be the voice of what is basically the Kraken and it’ll be fine. You can have fun, you can be bright and silly and entertaining and it will all be fine. While Aquaman is flawed in several ways, the film itself still ends up being actually fun to watch and I hope that DC pays attention to this one, because more films like this and they may actually be able to catch up to Marvel.
It’s big dumb fun… you know, kinda like it should be!