Aquaman: Neutrally Buoyant

I had the opportunity, along with thousands of Amazon Prime members across the country, to see Aquaman a week early. I went in with mixed expectations.  The previews looked surprisingly good.  I've heard relatively good things about it in advance press.  But then again, this is a DC Extended Universe film, which is an automatic warning sign.  A dire warning sign.

So how was it?  Was it great?  Was it awful?

The answer is it isn't either.  It's okay.  It's fun.  It's entertaining.  But it's also heavily flawed and it drags at times.

Instead of rising to the top like Wonder Woman did or sinking to the bottom like, frankly, the rest of the DCEU films, it just sort of sits there in the middle.  It's roughly equivalent to the lesser Marvel films like Hulk, any of the Thor movies (yes, even you Ragnarok), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Considering the last DCEU movie, not bad is probably a big victory.  But the film could have been so much more that I left vaguely disappointed.  Every bright spot was counterbalanced by flaws.  Jason Momoa is incredibly charming throughout, but the character he plays has some issues.  The fight scenes are largely well choreographed and the visual effects are far better than I would have expected possible.  But the dialogue is often clunky and there are scenes that are a little too Hobbity, if you know what I mean.  Every plus has a minus, every minus has a plus.

It's impossible to talk too much more about the pros and cons of the film without entering spoiler territory, so if you don't want anything spoiled, please feel free to click away now.  Otherwise, I'll see you below Dolph Lundgren having a bad hair day.

The movie unfortunately opens with several minutes of dull narration and flashbacks as we see how Aquaman's mother meets his father and then how he discovers his powers and has the typical DCEU hero's childhood of lost parents and bullying (seriously, is anyone allowed to have a happy childhood in Zack Snyder's universe?).  We get even more narration when learning about how Atlan forged an incredible trident (the one to rule all other tridents) and inadvertently led to Atlantis's sinking below the ocean.  We're also treated to some incredibly clunky dialogue providing even more exposition, especially when it comes to establishing the main villains of the film, Black Manta and Ocean Master.

They did a great job with the costume, though.
The introduction of Black Manta and establishing his vendetta against Aquaman is very awkward, especially for those liking their superheroes to be heroic.  In the comics, Manta blames Aquaman for the death of his father (which is a kind of nice coincidence in film in which the guy who was Jango Fett plays a major character).  In the movie, Aquaman actually does cause the death of Manta's father by outright refusing to help him survive and escape a sinking submarine.  Having it be an accident would be one thing, but here it's cold blooded murder.  What's more, though Aquaman later admits that Manta is hunting him down in legitimate retaliation, there's no payoff in the film where he learns his lesson.  It's like he went to the Pa Kent School of Superheroism.

Never trust anyone with an undersea man bun.
Ocean Master is almost a good villain, but the writers (including Geoff Johns) wimps out just a little bit.  Aquaman's half-brother Orm is sometimes almost noble but is usually arrogant and conniving.  He actually has a point to his desire to go to war with the surface world (we are kind of jerks to the ocean and its dwellers), but it's made clear this is just an excuse for him to consolidate power.  Had DC taken the right cue from Marvel and turned Orm into the aquatic white guy equivalent of Eric Killmonger, it would make for a more powerful and nuanced film.  As is, Ocean Master is a bit dull.

It does make you wonder who the last kingdom is.
Where Aquaman shines best is in exploring the undersea world of its hero.  Throughout the film, partly due to a convoluted plan by Orm to unite the kingdoms for war and partly due to Aquaman needing to hunt down Atlan's trident (one trident to rule them all), we become acquainted with six of the seven kingdoms of Atlantis, and though one of them is a cheat of a dead civilization and a couple more suffer from makeup and visual effects deficiencies, the fact that we get to see so much of the kingdoms and their people provides a richer view of the world than just having this lone aquatic guy swimming around fighting air breathing bad guys all movie long.

Not CG's finest moments.
The action is fairly well done.  While a few CG-heavy scenes are problematic, the undersea action sequences are largely fast paced and visually interesting.  You can actually believe you're watching people swim at super speeds and controlling water.  A fight with the Trench aboard a trawler is engrossing, makes good use of dim (but not nonexistent) lighting and shadows, and has the feel of raised stakes.  It's sadly followed up by undersea scenes that seem taken straight from the Hobbit School of Graphics Overuse, but the part that's good is very, very good.

And let's face it: they made the Aquaman costume look cool.
In terms of performances, when not narrating, Jason Momoa steals his own movie, as his Arthur Curry is incredibly charismatic and fun.  Amber Heard is serviceable as Mera, who will of course by the end of the film become his lover.  Nicole Kidman puts in a Nicole Kidmanesque performance as mom Atlanna.  No one else really steps off the screen, though Willem Dafoe tries his hardest with not much to work with as Vulko.

I'd recommend going to see Aquaman.  Don't expect to be as wowed as you probably were by Wonder Woman.  But I do think it's important for Warner Bros. to get proof that it's a step in the right direction, because they do not have an established record of doing the right thing with these properties when left to their own judgement.
Aquaman: Neutrally Buoyant Aquaman: Neutrally Buoyant Reviewed by JL Franke on Thursday, December 20, 2018 Rating: 5
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