Although it’s mostly entertaining, Aquaman ultimately chafes away viewers’ interest like dried seawater.
Much ado has been made about Aquaman still during its production, and the vortex of social media interest has only increased since its release. In many ways, the bubbling of excitement surrounding Aquaman is surprising, given the unfortunately dismal track record of DC’s movies (excluding Wonder Woman). A lot of the attention stemmed from the obvious fact that Aquaman would not be DC business as usual, tonally and visually. Aquaman was shaping up to be the black sheep of the DC film universe: lighter, funnier, and more of a color palette (thank god) than the rest of the murky DC family.
So, does it live up to the hype placed on it by desperate, downtrodden-yet-still-loyal fans and casual consumers of superhero fare alike? Well, kind of.
Let me say that the problems I had with Aquaman are not that it tried to do things differently from its counterparts in the DC pantheon. It was actually rather successful in employing a more appealing aesthetic visually--Atlantis especially is a wonderfully glowing ball of saturated color and creative imagery, and the best, most exciting sequences of the film happen there. Gone is the brooding and mopey “grit” of the Zach Snyder films. Aquaman really uses its exotic locales to create the most memorable locations in all the DC Extended Universe.
Along with the creative locales, Director James Wan succeeds in transmuting the frenetic action style of Furious 7 to Aquaman. There is plenty of action, and each set-piece seems to have a different approach depending on setting and characters involved. Atlantis and Atlanteans practice a fluid style of battle, using the 360-degree movement water affords; the fight against Mantis over and through Sicily is a brute force buffet; the opening battle on a submarine is all about tossing baddies down long corridors. Thanks to this, none of the fights ever seem repetitive or rote, there’s a real core to each one.
The battle set-pieces and seemingly unending action do begin to wear as the run-time extends to what seemed like infinity to me in the theater, however. This is a long movie. About half hour before the end I found myself realizing that our hero still had much to do before the resolution, and I was fidgeting in my seat. I think the Manta subplot is the chief culprit here that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. As I understand it, Manta is an archenemy of Aquaman in the comics, and he is plainly being set-up for the next film as a more potent player, but he was so useless to the plot of this film, so shoehorned, that I could conjure up an image of the ripped and crumpled pages, tossed in frustration across the room by the poor screenwriter tearing their hair out at where Manta could possibly factor into this script. Without this entire subplot, we’re looking at about 25-30 minutes saved, and the movie would be better for it.
Also doing the film no favors, clunking the story along with the efficiency of a rusty hinge was the dialogue. My god, the dialogue...it is genuinely bad. The exposition is delivered with the naturalism of a highschool Spanish class, the one-liners curdle your insides. Not all of this is the fault of the screenplay, some of Aquaman’s source material and the Atlantean titles therein are genuinely ridiculous (see: Ocean Master). The comic was considered somewhat of a joke for a reason. Aquaman was never as cool as Batman or Superman, and he doesn’t have the same gravitas. The film misses its chance to wink at these silly story elements, to nudge us and let us know it’s in on the joke. When Aquaman’s brother talks of becoming Ocean Master, when an entire army of Atlanteans rides in on sharks with laser beams on their heads to blast the claws off giant sentient crab people, it is presented with a straight face. The cast emotes with dramatic seriousness, the leaden dialogue is perplexingly filled with awkward pauses as if the cast is leaving space for a laugh-track that never comes. The only one who seems to understand, to be truly having fun with the ridiculousness of it all, is Jason Momoa, thankfully making Aquaman himself a charismatic and fun hero to root for. This could have been Deadpool-esque, but instead plays more like The Room in its lack of self-awareness.
Adding to the oblivious nature of the film is the score. Scored by Rupert Gregson Williams, whose repertoire consists almost completely of sophomoric comedies, the score plays like a compilation of generic stingers wrapped into a downloadable package by some film blog in an effort to extort money from first-time filmmakers. Complete with Inception bass and the classic ‘dun dun dun!’, every emotion we are supposed to be feeling in a given moment is piledriven into us to make sure we understand. Aquaman is SAD now ok? Now he’s ANGRY, you know ANGRY? No? Let RGW help you. Williams, who must be used to cuing gross-out gag after gag for Adam Sandler and Kevin Smith, loses the thread in Aquaman.
The positives of the film refuse to be completely drowned by the boneheaded decisions of those behind the camera, and the cast does their best to save it, delivering one of the better installments in the floundering DC franchise. But it makes one think, if DC were half as good as Marvel Studios, you can’t help but wonder if Aquaman would have made a splash at all.