Aquaman is the *most* movie you’ll experience all year.
Propped up by a shoddy script; one that doesn’t establish well enough its initial stakes, nor does it make it clear how these will pay off in anything other than a perfunctory superhero slugfest. Romance is too rushed (I caught myself rolling my eyes) at one point. And you know what? None of it matters. Because I had the time of my life with Aquaman.
James Wan has crafted a film so huge, so spectacular, it functions as the greatest cinematic sensory overload this side of Avatar. Much criticism was lobbied at Cameron’s film (from myself included) for sticking to a rigid, familiar structure even with an elongated runtime. Look, I’ve given that movie plenty of nonsense in my days, but that thing moves and you’ll never find a better demo disc for testing out a home theater. The images and sound that film conjures up are why people love these huge blockbusters. Aquaman, for issues entirely of its own accord, is a kindred spirit. Aquaman is a sprawling, visual feast. Technology alien to anything outside of the goofiest space franchises has found a home beneath the deep blue sea. Neon glow from aquatic life and architecture feels like James Wan saw all these blockbuster film’s label their director’s as a visionary before he scoffed, “No, no, this is all wrong. Let me show you.” Atlantis has never looked so good on film.
Ambition is the key word here. Initially pitched as a Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone style adventure with DC characters, director James Wan fully commits to a heightened pulp sensibility without having to nudge the audience. Of course all this shit is insane. It doesn’t take place in our reality. It’s an embrace of the fantastical. Wan swung huge. Audiences will either sink or swim.
I think that’s why we’re already seeing Aquaman‘s tidal wave of success hit overseas. Foreign markets digest film as an art differently. American audiences have generally shown to be more interested in plot and more grounded visual delivery. There’s nothing wrong with grounded! I’d still die for films occupying similar space such as Logan or Batman Begins. But those fit alongside the narratives. Aquaman has no interest in tethering itself to our reality. James Wan comes from a similar down-under filmmaking style as Peter Jackson. Atmosphere, colors, shapes and lighting influence mood more than dialogue. The camera swoops and dives, whipping us around the seven seas and tossing us back on land before we go through those maneuvers all over again. Wan’s energy is more reliant on technique and form more than content on the page.
Look to the scene when Arthur first meets Orm. The colors and lighting signify traditional elements of royalty as signs of oppression in the face of Arthur’s journey. A movie using visual expressions to articulate what the story is communicating?! In 2018?! It’s shocking that it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Back to on the surface discussion, Aquaman‘s fantasy adventure, seems to cover familiar ground. Arthur Curry is a child born of two worlds, deemed for greatness and a man who would be king to unite the land and sea. Rejected by Atlantis, Arthur has no interest in digging up old wounds. He rejects a hero’s call to action before having the journey thrust upon him. It’s easier for Arthur to ignore his problems than face them head on. A truly relatable superhero.
Jason Momoa is a superstar. He’s big and lovable, but also a total badass. He radiates charisma. His performances are sometimes unwieldy but always entertaining. Aquaman is a perfect vehicle for the man because of all these reasons. Bold, excited and ambitious. It’s a performance of showmanship that edges on greatness. So when a late-film moment finds Arthur Curry is on his hands and knees, asking for help, I found myself in awe. The swaggering bravado, the cocky care-free attitude that we love about Jason Momoa for? It’s a front. He’s still just an insecure little boy finding more comfort in fish than most people.
Already a superhero by the start of the story, Arthur has not truthfully found comfort in his own identity. A hero of mixed heritage, rejected by one culture, begs for some kind of salvation to a Kaiju Mary Poppins (just watch the movie). Not for himself but for others. Arthur’s physical arc follows a globe-trotting MacGuffin escapade, while his emotional arc is about his sense of self-worth.
Comparisons have been suggested in relation to Black Panther, two adventurous stories of cultural identity amidst a Shakespearean family drama fitting within the mold of a superhero story. It’s hard to deny that sentiment, but I’d actually argue this makes both films stronger. They both can remind us the power these stories have. Even when they’re owned by giant corporations, cogs in a machine to turn a profit, an artistic truth still shines through. Representation and identity held as a high standard of power. Empathy as something sincere and not to be scoffed at.
If there are any major, legitimate issues I have with Aquaman, it’s something that stems from the current marketplace of movies. I wanted MORE. Not if the story didn’t call for it, of course. But sometimes it’s nice to have adventures with a little bloat. Give characters and events more time to catch their breath. When it comes to fantasy in particular, the atmosphere and world building informs both narrative and character. So why not spend more time in it? Lord of the Rings was nearly two decades ago! Even The Hobbit films made a gagglefuck of money. I’m still waiting for a three hour Star Wars, honestly (I still love you, Last Jedi ❤).
In many ways, Aquaman still has a plethora of plot and characters to digest. It’s probably excessive, and yes, there is probably too much going on. I know this sounds like a contradiction to my previous point, but I actually commend it for that! The problems here could only be found with something ambitious and soulful as this.
We could spend several paragraphs discussing the relationship between Arthur Curry and his parents. How the film’s bookended by something that looks like the cover of a paperback romance novel and still left me emotionally devastated (MAKING A SINCERE STATEMENT ON LOVE AND COMMUNICATION BEING A FORCE OF HEROISM IN 2018! YES! YES! YES!). Or how Black Manta looks unabashedly awesome and nerdy. Or how Mera kicks loads of ass and even has her own agency mostly! (look, I’m not saying its perfect). And then we could talk about that part where Mera uses wine to make shooting daggers, objectively the greatest use of wine in a film in our lifetime. How there are definitely pacing issues… And the romance is undercooked… Or the story needs to be spaced out a little more. But I’m not thinking about any of that. It stopped bothering me the moment I realized how much I was won over by this unrestrained fantasy adventure.
There is true beauty to be found in Aquaman. You just have to look deeper beneath the surface.