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There are a lot of odd occurrences in director James Wan’s Aquaman. The first begins early in the film when villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his pirate crew hijack a Russian submarine and shoot their hostages. Firing a gun on a submarine seems as bad an idea as smoking a cigarette on a hydrogen blimp, but it’s not as bad as anything in past DC movies (excluding the great Wonder Woman). Whereas the likes of Justice League and Suicide Squad were messes of brooding and out-of-character goofiness, Aquaman stands out alongside Wonder Woman as tonally-consistent fun.
Jason Momoa returns as Aquaman, emerging relatively unscathed from debuting in last year’s Justice League. The King of Atlantis has been the butt of jokes for decades for being the most useless superhero whose only contribution is talking to fish (the comics have attempted rehabilitating his image, the best being the 2011 New 52 series where he’s reluctant to help humanity because of all the jokes). But Momoa’s portrayal is more Captain Jack Sparrow than a joke; his charisma letting him get away with calling things “badass” or confronting his villainous brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) and calling him a dick.
The film shows Aquaman’s origins; his human father Thomas (Temuera Morrison) rescued his mother Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), fall in love, and raise a son. But, Aquaman develops a grudge against Atlanta when they capture his mother. He reluctantly agrees to help Princess Mera (Amber Heard) to stop King Orm from uniting the underwater kingdoms to wage war against the surface world. Together, they trot the globe in search of a legendary trident as they’re pursued by King Orm’s men and a vengeful Black Manta.
… gives the DC film universe the heart it has been searching for.
Wan is known as a horror director, having created the Saw and The Conjuring franchises. His inexperience with big-budget special-effects may be why he falters during big action set-pieces. Underwater battles are disorientating, with the screen becoming overwhelmed by CGI and difficult to focus on. Wan shows better judgement when it comes to the horror-influenced scene of Aquaman and Mera journeying in to The Trench. The Trenchdwellers are superbly-designed monsters (a HP Lovecraft influence is hinted early on), and the creatures surrounding the pair as they dive down is the best shot of the film, resembling a spread from a comic book.
Much like most of its fight scenes, Aquaman’s story also suffers from glut. There’s a barrage of campy humour that feels like the writers have thrown everything at the wall and hoping some sticks, with some working very well—a drumming octopus and Willem Dafoe riding a seahorse—and others groan-worthy—“I can breathe underwater, but you can still drink me under the table”. The exposition suffers the most, needlessly extending the running-time with unnecessary location titles and backstory. The backstory is already made clear in dialogue, so flashbacks only serve the purpose of displaying a creepily de-aged Dafoe.
Where Aquaman stands above its fellow DC films is in its character development. Villains with depth have been a problem in comic book films for a long time, with even Wonder Woman suffering from having a villain whose only purpose was to destroy humanity. Since Marvel’s Black Panther, they have more reasoning for their ways, and Black Manta and King Orm are the same; the former wanting revenge, while the latter is angered by human polluters.
The best scene in the film combines campy humour with development for when Aquaman and Mera explore Sicily. Mera is presented with roses, which she eats. Rather than embarrass her, Aquaman promptly grabs a rose and eats it, too. It’s a sweet reminder that these super-beings have some humanity, and gives the DC film universe the heart it has been searching for.
Aquaman is in cinemas now.
DIRECTOR: James Wan
PRODUCER: Warner Bros Pictures
CAST: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman
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