Guest review by: Callum The Critic
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I am not going to open up my introduction with a typical comment on the DCEU because I feel like I have nothing new to say about it and I would rather stay focused on “Aquaman” himself. As far as heroes within the DC Universe goes, Aquaman is certainly one of my favourites, although not quite Top 5 material for me (that would include Batman, John Constantine, Superman, The Question and Martian Manhunter), so a film based on one of my favourite DC heroes is certainly a film that I have some hype towards the film even if it was part of the DCEU. Aside from being part of the DCEU, this film also had the taste of proving to audiences that Aquaman is no longer the walking punchline that the terrible “Super Friends” cartoon helped spawn (a joke that shows like “Robot Chicken” and “Family Guy” that really beat to the ground), but is actually a cool character (without trying too hard at it like I felt the film “Justice League” kind of did) who deserves to be in the same leagues as the likes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. While I wouldn’t say this is an origin story that is in leagues with say “Batman Begins”, “Superman: The Movie” or even last years “Wonder Woman”, I am honestly surprised on how much I enjoyed this one and I will explain why in this non-spoiler review:
Let me get this one thing out of the way in regards to this film and that is how people are comparing it to the “Thor” films, but this is mainly because the two film series clearly take inspiration from the Arthurian tales on an internal level with a major them of the film being what it means to be a king, but dressed up with the coating of James Cameron’s underrated “The Abyss” by way of the style of “Flash Gordon”, with a bit of the romantic adventure tone of an Indiana Jones film for good measure, this is a big crowd-pleaser that may be over-ambitious, but is one of the more successful DC films for simply being unashamed about what it is. While I have heard some people make comments about how the film approaches about the films themes of what it means to be a king and how it comes off as rushed when compared to how the Thor films treated such an idea. I honestly have to disagree with these people, mainly because the very idea of what it means to be a king was barely an idea in any of the Thor films (minus maybe the first film) and was treated more like a thinly veiled thread that doesn’t really informs the characteristics and actions that took place within those films and it also helps that at least with the future of Aquaman that we might actually get to see him as king and explore new ideas of a superhero who is also a monarch.
This film doesn’t have that issue for me since it plays a major part in Arthur’s conflict of the film with his reluctance in becoming king pretty much answers to why he should be king because as the character archetype of the reluctant ruler that King Arthur helped to inspire, he is a character who doesn’t want power, but is destined for it and his refusal both helps underlines the high stakes that the hero is being called upon to do and even helps make the character of Arthur somewhat relatable since most of us would be pretty freaked out if we are told to suddenly give up everything in our lives to go questing. His sense of unworthiness especially when compared to the films main villain Ocean Master does tell us a lot about Arthur as a character, mainly his humility, selflessness, the fact that he is someone raised among the people despite his god like status (both literally and figuratively) and the nobility once he realize what the greater good is.
I would also the inspiration from Arthurian mythology works much more in favour of a DC story than it would for a Marvel story since the natural of a lot of DC heroes take direct inspiration from mythological tales from Greek mythology to Arthurian mythology (whereas Marvel is more of the case of trying to be the real world through the lens of the heroes journey and superpowers) and it uses the mythological framework of its narrative to explore many aspects of what plays into the idea of what it means to be a king from the idea of those who would to get power from ones sake are those not suited for such leadership, to how certain family types can unite through trust or separate different kinds of people through mistrust with Arthur himself as a character acting like a bridge between two worlds.
Enough of comparing this film to a MCU film (for now), I think it worth comparing this film to a DCEU film: “Man of Steel”. Structurally, both films have a lot in common and yet “Aquaman” is the better film that is clearly inspired by “Batman Begins”. What do I mean by all this? Well like “Man of Steel”, it is a superhero origin story about a larger than life character (even by the standards of the superhero genre) who is destined for greater thing despite his reluctance and told through the lens of a non-linear narrative. Yet how did “Aquaman” for the most part manage to be more successful with such an approach than “Man of Steel”? Let’s start with the non-linear storytelling approach, while I will admit that I am one of those people who really liked “Man of Steel” when I first watched it (and while I don’t hate the film and there still things that I admire about the film, some the problems with it become more apparent), even back then I thought the films narrative choice to with a more non-linear approach came off as rather sloppy and the film not really getting why such a creative choice worked in the favour of “Batman Begins” due to how both the flashbacks were not told in chronological order like the rest of the film as well as how the flashbacks often felt rather sudden with how they often come off as massive bumps in the films pacing.
While watching “Aquaman”, I can’t help but think that James Wan watched “Man of Steel” and used similar tropes to that film, but with an understand of how and why they are used in films like “Batman Begins” as the flashbacks were creatively integrated into the film through slick choices of direction such using more organic editing tricks and motifs (like the trident) to translate one scene to another. It also really helps that the character trait of reluctance is something that is better suited and associated with the Aquaman character that I am familiar with than it does with Superman who is more in line with aspiring hero type.
As for the criticism about the plot of the film being a messy, I personally think said criticism is a tiny bit overblown due to how similar it is to films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or any adventure film as far as the role of certain characters and tropes are utilised (although I do really appreciate that the artifact that the hero is looking for isn’t just the typical all powerful McGuffin that everyone is after, but is actually symbolic of the heroes arc), although I will say that the world building and questing that resorting into expository dialogue which while do felt natural as Arthur was used as an audience avatar, my issue is the film really doesn’t get creative or merge a lot of drama within said exposition to keep me engaged as thus felt like moments in which the pacing didn’t entirely work for me and felt like the parts of the film in which the film placed a bit too many eggs in one basket.
There is also a few retcons that I have noticed that are somewhat inconsistent with certain scenes from “Justice League” that I have noticed (mainly the scenes with Atlantis), they don’t completely destroy the film to me as this film is like the other good DCEU film “Wonder Woman” in which it stands perfectly fine on its own, but something worth pointing out as I hope these retcons don’t become so excessive like they were in “Justice League”.
Now onto the characters and performances, I’ve already gone into detail on Arthur as a character in the story part of the review since he is pretty much was the main meat of the film, but I will talk about Momoa in the role. I am going to be honest here, I wasn’t fully onboard the casting of Momoa as Aquaman because it honestly kind of came off as the guys at DC overcompensating on there never ending quest on winning people over the idea that Aquaman is a cool character and we all know that trying too hard is never cool. At first, I thought I was right with how his character was written in “Justice League”, but luckily with the better material he was given in this film, I felt like his charisma and determination really worked in his favour.
As for other characters, there is the villain of Orm a.k.a. Ocean Master played by long time James Wan collaborator Patrick Wilson who is surprisingly a villain who doesn’t suck or actually has a plan that is consistent with the internal logic of his motives that I find to be pretty sympathetic, but not to the point of coming off as overly sappy. While I say Patrick Wilson does a fine job as Ocean Master, it kind of reminds me of Michael Shannon as General Zod in “Man of Steel” in which I am not sure if feel like Wilson really “owned” the role as I didn’t get the sense that he was the only actor for such a role. As for Amber Heard as Mera, I am going to be honest here (and I know a mate of mine who likes Amber Heard in the same way I like Eva Green might give me crap for this), but this is my first proper exposure to Amber Heard as an actress (I know she was in “Justice League”, but that rather small cameo barely counts) and so far this is a good first impression for me as while she doesn’t quite have the sharp edge that Mera has in the comic books (which I am fine for this film as that would be something I like to see gradually happen over several films), but Heard brings plenty of pathos to her role, she has pretty good chemistry with Momoa and is actually pretty believable in the action scenes without the writers overcompensating or being so obnoxious about her being a “strong badass female” by making her into a Mary Sue by actually having her struggle during the action scenes.
There is also Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta who was just straight up comic book version of the character, he’s as crazy and stubborn and melodramatic as I hoped for and I cannot wait for the sequel to this film to further develop one of the most unique rivalries that I have seen as far as archenemies go from DC Comics. The only important character and performance in this film that I honestly didn’t care for was Willem Dafoe as Vulko who in this film serves a similar role to that of Merlin from the stories of King Arthur, but that’s really all there is to his character and for an actor as talented as Dafoe, I felt like his talents were kind of wasted for a character who really was there is provide exposition for how Arthur’s powers work.
While I usually don’t like talking about the humour for a film that isn’t strictly a comedy, but when it comes to this film, I honestly felt like it is worth discussion on how natural the humour in film felt to me (minus one of two) especially when compared a MCU film like “Thor: Ragnarok” with two scenes in particular that just stood out to me in the best way. The first one is one involving Arthur at a bar and some selfies since the film at first teases towards its audience that it is going to be one of those overly macho and cliché bar fight scenes that I have honestly grown to hate as much as other film clichés like the “liar reveal” melodrama that a lot of films like to do. It is honestly the kind of subverting your expectations kind of humour that worked for me since a group of guys at a bar trying to pick a fight with Aquaman would not make an sense in the first place considering Arthur’s skin is strong enough to survive the pressure of the Atlantic Ocean, so trying to pick a fight with someone like that would simply be a death wish for those guys and therefore what we’ve got instead simply came off as natural moments of levity since it actually came off like a scene of people meeting a celebrity in a bar.
The other moment of levity that stuck out to me is a fish out of water moment (you all knew that joke was coming) with Mera on the surface world eating some roses in Sicily. I think the reason why this moment is also a perfect representation of most of the films levity is how it paces itself. Compared to a lot of gags in “Thor: Ragnarok” which always felt forced and rather desperate to me because of how they always ruin the momentum of a scene in the same way suddenly using a handbreak as you are driving 70 miles per hour on the motorway ruins the momentum of the drivers thrill while driving. The rose eating scene with Mera does not have that with me since the whole scene was treated like one of those rather adorable and sweet scene of her learning to appreciate the surface world and while the gag of her eating roses is funny, it is also still a rather charming and sweet scene that is steadily paced with the rest of the scene. I guess you could say that the scene is a nice example of mixing emotions in the same way a lot of moments in real life are kind of like.
Finally is onto the overall direction of the film and damn does James Wan direct this film as well as he could. While I will say some of the more close hand to hand combat action scenes are easily the weaker part of his direction since they were shot a bit close for me and the editing felt a little off in place, it is really when the action goes into the more fantastical action scenes is where the direction of Wan really shines for me. The visual look for this film is easily some of the more gorgeous looking imagery that I have ever seen and that’s saying something considering that this film has Amber Heard in it. A major helping factor this film had when it comes to its visuals being as gorgeous as they are is that unlike other DCEU films, the colour palette isn’t muted and the brightly lit images are actually allowed to stick out more.
There is also a few moments in this film that utilise the whole action sequences being filmed like it was all done in one shot that became popular ever since the hallway fight from Netflix’s “Daredevil”. It is no secret that this is a gimmick that I have gotten tired of when it comes to a lot of action films like “Black Panther” recently because the gimmick is such cheap attempt at tricking you into thinking the films has more artistic integrity in its direction than it actually does. This is not the case with this film for me since the films does it more than once and it is pretty consistent with the films rather stylised look to the point in which the one shots don’t feel like a different director came onboard because the main guy who ill on the day of the scenes shooting. And without giving away any spoilers here, but it would not be a James Wan film without moments of horror and there is one scene that involved Arthur and Mera in the middle of the ocean that wouldn’t feel too out of place in a creature feature horror film with how intense the scene was.
“Aquaman” is a film that I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did due to the rather low standards that most of the DCEU films have set for the film. Yet the film consistently gave me quite the grin and while at some point the film might have been a bit too complicated or ambitious for its own good, the film overall is a pretty functional and enjoyable entry, which is certainly the kind of film that the DCEU really needs after many started to lose hope for it with films like “Batman v. Superman”, “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” leaving a lot to be desired.
This might come off as yours truly being a bit too generous for this film, but my score for “Aquaman” will be a score of 4 sea creatures out of 5.