Has Warner Brothers and DC Comics given up on their Extended Universe? Having most of their projects being critically drubbed, as well as getting spanked in the box office by Marvel, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that the studio execs were rethinking their superhero film strategy. Case in point, their latest outing, the special effects extravaganza that is Aquaman, doesn’t even mention the other members of the Justice League, and with Ben Affleck and Henry Cavil seeming to be jumping ship, I can see why the filmmakers did their best to basically make Aquaman a standalone film. However, this would have worked better if it had come out before Justice League had poisoned the well.
The movie opens with a little origin story moment: Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) escapes from an arranged marriage in Atlantis, where she then meets a lonely lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison). The two quickly fall in love, and nine months later, a baby pops out. Family bliss is soon interrupted when Atlantean soldiers show up to take Atlanna back to Atlantis, where her King has apparently just been kicking back and waiting for his betrothed to eventually show up, and so to keep her family safe, Atlanna returns to the sea, leaving young Arthur to his father’s care. We then jump to the present day to find that a crew of pirates, who have captured a Russian nuclear submarine, are facing off against a now grown-up Arthur (Jason Momoa). The leader of this band of ruthless cutthroats is none other than the notorious Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and to say this character was a one dimensional waste of screen time is being generous. Even later in the film, when he is outfitted in the latest Atlantean tech, he’s still about as exciting as a trip to the dentist.
Not to worry, Black Manta is not this film’s primary villain, that would be Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother and current ruler of Atlantis, and I must say Patrick Wilson does a bang-up job with this role, especially when he spouts such cheesy dialogue as, “The time has come for Atlantis to rise again.” He totally sells it, and it’s clear he is having a lot of fun with the part, it’s just a shame that his cast mates weren’t in on the joke. And what exactly does King Orm want? He’s looking to trigger war with the surface world, which apparently demands approval from the leaders of the seven seas, including King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), whose daughter Mera (Amber Heard) is betrothed to Orm. Mera is not too keen on the idea of all-out war with the surface world, or in marrying Orm for that matter, so she seeks out Arthur to ask him to return with her to Atlantis, and take his rightful place on the throne.
Note: I’m not sure how royal lineage works in Atlantis, but as far as I can tell, Orm is the rightful ruler — Atlanna became queen through marriage, to Orm’s father the king, so Arthur, being a by-product of her cheating on the king with an outsider, has no claim to the throne whatsoever.
One of the key problems with James Wan’s Aquaman is the overly complicated the plot, one that has repeated flashbacks of Willem Dafoe tutoring young Arthur that ultimately destroys any sense of pacing or urgency, and all the “I challenge you for the throne” nonsense is just useless noise. Do we care that King Nereus is knowingly in league with a schemer and a tyrant? Absolutely not, we barely know who the hell King Nereus is, let alone what motivates him to betray the people of Atlantis. How about all those other undersea kingdoms, will they stand with Orm in his plans to destroy the surface world? Couldn’t care less, they’re just a collection of CGI armies that look like they escaped from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. We neither know nor care about any of these people. Hell, this script has a hard enough time getting me to care about Aquaman, and he’s supposed to be a card carrying member of the Justice League. And once again, the reluctant hero trope is trotted out — Orm planning on wiping out the surface world not being enough to motivate Aquaman — and I’m sorry, but a grumpy beer-swilling Aquaman is just not my cup of tea.
Now I can’t blame all this on James Wan, he did inherit a lot of this from Justice League, but what I can’t forgive him for was the complete lack of screen chemistry between the two leads. I’ve seen pod people display more emotions than what Jason Momoa and Amber Heard exhibit here. Then, as if this movie wasn’t already a convoluted mess, it drastically shifts genres so that we can have Aquaman and Mera globetrotting around in search of a mystical trident, as if they were in a National Treasure sequel. It’s here that the movie pretty much grinds to a halt, where they arrive in Sicily so they can have a Pinocchio joke and another Black Manta action sequence, but all this does is pad the film’s already hefty run-time. Did the filmmakers actually think we needed a Tomb Raider meets Goonies moment when the fate of the world hangs in the balance?
On the plus side, the film does have some simply stunning visuals — though a few more actual sets and a little less full-CGI environments couldn’t have hurt — and this version of Atlantis is gobsmackingly beautiful, with a nice mix of ancient ruins and modern fantastical structures, and I will always get a kick out of seeing warriors riding giant seahorses and armored sharks. It is all so cool, and it’s clear that the film’s team of art directors had a blast designing the various undersea kingdoms and their inhabitants — if only they were in service of a better script.
• We first see Aquaman single-handedly raising a nuclear submarine to the ocean surface, then he’s duking it out with Black Manta, and I’m left asking, “How exactly does any fight between a human and this version of Aquaman last more than two seconds?”
• If Atlanteans can swim faster than a torpedo I’m not sure why they bother riding seahorses.
• In a flashback we learn the origins of Atlantis: the hubris of the king causing the city to be destroyed and sink beneath the waves, but we are then told that the survivors either evolved or devolved to survive underwater. I’m not sure the filmmakers understand how evolution works. Are we to believe it’s possible to evolve fast enough to not drown while your city sinks?
• The superpowers of Atlanteans is not made clear. Aquaman can talk to fish, which seems to surprise Mera, and I assume this stemmed from him being a half breed, because as far as I could tell, his mother didn’t have that talent, but then Mera has the wonderful ability to control water. So where did that ability stem from, are superpowers in Atlanteans just like random mutant powers?
• Black Manta is given next-generation weapons so that he can kill Aquaman, he then takes all that tech back to his place to modify it, but where exactly does a pirate get the skills and knowledge to tinker with Atlantean superweapons? Is there more backstory on him that we are missing?
• Mera breaks the helmet of an Atlantean soldier, causing the life-giving water to drain out, and the soldier saves himself by sticking his head in a toilet. Seriously?
• At no point in this film does Orm call out, “Release the Kraken!” Missed opportunity there, that’s all I’m saying.
To me, it looks as if they took an origin story for Aquaman — one the filmmakers were apparently not that keen on as it is so clumsily handled here — and then shoved it into this movie about Orm wanting to become Ocean Master. If, prior to the Justice League movie, we had been given an origin film, one maybe dealing with his first encounter with Black Manta, and then at the end of that movie Mera showed up, warning him of the threat his half-brother has become, that would have been a nice set-up for the sequel. You’d get your big underwater Lord of the Rings epic, and everybody would be happy, but instead we get this rather underwhelming mess, one that has truly amazing visuals, and to be honest some really fun moments, but not enough to overcome a convoluted script and a somewhat unlikable hero.
As DC extended universe movies go this was easily better than Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Justice League, but it nowhere near has the fun or charm of Wonder Woman. If the studio does their rumored “Flashpoint Paradox” this whole series could be a moot point anyway.