Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world. (from IMDb)
Sadly, last year's Justice League did little to spark my interest in the character (or follow-up film) Aquaman--despite its intentions to. Jason Momoa is more of a "surfer dude" type to be playing the iconic blonde-haired, orange-and-green suited superhero of the ocean, but Justice League didn't do much more than to paint the character as a caricature. Now, a year later, a standalone Aquaman movie is performing incredibly better at the box office and is doing everything Justice League should have done to not only further establish the DC Comics cinematic universe, but also introduce brand new characters to audiences abroad. Like Patty Jenkins did for Wonder Woman last year, James Wan has done for the King of the Sea, further proving these heroes fair better on their own than in a high concept collective film.
The trailers also did little to get me pumped for an Aquaman outing, which is sad because the film actually turned out to be quite good and a lot of fun--especially presented in a larger format like IMAX. The aspect ratio changed frequently throughout the film to fill the screen during the action and underwater sequences. And while I've become numb to the over-use of CG in films (i.e. it's not all that impressive anymore, like in The Meg, for example), director James Wan and his team used the technology quite effectively in Aquaman. The underwater scenes--particularly when Mera takes Arthur through Atlantis--really are breathtaking. With this film, the IMAX format was truly immersive, so I felt it truly brought out the best the movie had to offer.
Last year's Justice League introduced Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman to the world (I don't think the tiny cameo in 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice really counts). Momoa has carved out celebrity status on his own as Conan the Barbarian in the 2011 remake, Game of Thrones, and on shows like Stargate: Atlantis (coincidentally), and even Baywatch. He's not exactly who I'd imagine Aquaman from the comics to be, but he proves to make it work in this film. The strength of Momoa as Aquaman, though, is really only as strong as the players--and film--around him. And Aquaman is actually just as much about his family, the world around him, and the journey to truly becoming Aquaman as the character himself. The story feels like it takes a bit more of an outside-looking-in approach to Arthur and his journey, but it may also have a lot to do with how much story is getting packed into just one film. The movie is a lengthy 2 hours and 23 minutes--and it feels like it. Amber Heard stars opposite Momoa as the female lead, playing Mera of Atlantis, and is an inspired choice to match him. Patrick Wilson, who has probably starred in more movies you've seen than you realize, is an interesting choice for the film's central villain, but he works marvelously--not overplaying the villainy too much, and serving as a snotty, throne-hungry foil to Arthur. Willem Dafoe, who typically plays a villain or some other ruthless character, is excellent as Vulko, the king's assistant. It's really nice to see Dafoe as a good guy for a change. Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman play Arthur's parents, and they're a great focal point to the story, also serving as an integral part of it. The film has a wonderful opening, showing us how they meet (and colliding our world with Atlantis), and it's the perfect start to the film. Overall, it's a really solid cast assembly.
I revisited Justice League after watching Aquaman, because I was curious how the two films gel with continuity. In Justice League, Arthur seems to be somewhat already established as this legendary "Aquaman." He and Amber Heard's Mera even share a scene where she urges him to help Atlantis since he's a rightful heir to the throne, with a whole lot of exposition about his background (the history involving his mother is a bit sketchy in that scene too. He seems mad at her more than anything... which isn't the case in this film). In Aquaman, which clearly takes place after Justice League (Mera even mentions him defeating Steppenwolf), Arthur acts as if he's never met Mera and doesn't even know her name. It just further demonstrates how sloppy DC has been with how they're handling their films. The standalone outings still prove to be the best entries in this series of films (Man of Steel, Wonder Woman and now Aquaman), and it makes one wonder why the studio couldn't have taken the time to set up each characters' films individually before attempting to jam them all into one movie together. Also, having Justice League happen prior to this movie leaves one curious plot hole that I read questioned when Iron Man 3 released. As Tony Stark called out The Mandarin and had his cliff side mansion blown to bits and sent to the bottom of the ocean, where were the other Avengers? Really no one rushed to his aid? In Aquaman, the coastal waters all around the world start slamming land and crashing ships into cities and hurling out piles of garbage... and not one of the Justice League seem interested in this? Where's Superman? We know he's alive again. It's a minor gripe, of course--especially since this is Arthur's show--but if this is an established shared universe, surely another superhero would be interested in helping out or helping to stop something as catastrophic as that (and we know Superman senses danger, so surely he'd try to help, and then try to locate Arthur to find out what's up?).
One other thing that kind of irked me was some of the character design. I surely can appreciate a movie trying to stay faithful to its source material, but I've definitely gotten used to things being changed a bit to make it work for a live action, cinematic setting (like, seriously, thank God those little wings sticking out of Captain America's helmet were left off, for example). However, the designs for some of the Atlantian armor, as well as Black Manta himself, look lifted right out of the cartoony, campy world of the 90s television show, Power Rangers. One quick web search of Black Manta will reveal just how authentic the character design for the film was to the comic books, but in the context of the film, it looks ridiculous, and it just doesn't fit. (I mean, really--who can take that design seriously? Sure, it might freak you out if you saw it in real life, but there's something so undeniably campy about how it looks in the movie that it just makes you wonder how it made it to the big screen. The same goes for the ultra-bulky, ultra plastic-looking armored suits of the Atlantians. I get that they need to remain hydrated on land, and they were probably aiming for a more crab-shell-like design, but it's really cheesy looking on screen. Thankfully, the movie is way better than these little issues, but I do think it could have been better had someone just stopped to really question how this might play out on screen.
The content in Aquaman is on par with most superhero films, but is really only intense in a handful of scenes. However, when it gets rough, it's a bit rough. One of the opening scenes shows Manta and his band of pirates taking over a submarine, and he impales a crewman with a blade on his wrist at one point (and we see it sticking out of the victim's back at one point). Later, when Manta has a rematch with Aquaman, the villain stabs and slices him up pretty badly, with a spray of blood even flying from his back at one point as he gets tossed through the air (Aquaman's wearing a shirt, so it's not especially graphic, but it's a little surprising when it happens). Finally, there's a scene where some characters venture into "the trench" and we see swarms of really frightening fish-people-like creatures that are sure to terrify younger viewers. There's a fight scene with them that's a little gruesome, but given their fish-like nature, it's not exactly disturbing or unsettling. There's no real sexual content present, save for some cleavage in Mera's low-cut outfit, and some kissing. Profanity is infrequent, but there's roughly 3 "S" words and a handful of uses of "h*ll," "b*stard," and "*ss," (and 1 "S.O.B") as well as a few other minor cuss words. The only blasphemy noticed was one use of "My G-d" as an exclamation, which was a refreshing change from these types of movies that tend to have no respect for the Savior's name.
Aquaman is a sweet surprise. It's another example of having low expectations and writing off a movie early on and then being pleasantly surprised by it. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a great time at the movies, and tailor made for IMAX viewing. Hopefully the success of the standalone outings of Wonder Woman and Aquaman can inspire DC to take some time to reevaluate what works and how to proceed with the future of their own cinematic universe. I'm definitely on board for a future Aquaman installment, but until next time, though, I'm at least excited for Wonder Woman 1984 in the summer of 2020.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/30/18 - 1/1/19)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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