On paper, Aquaman sounds like a great idea. Hand off a character from a struggling franchise with one of the most ridiculous and convoluted mythologies to an innovative horror director with little regard for the rest of the DCEU as a whole and let him run wild with it. On screen, however, things don’t work out quite so well.
It’s obvious throughout that director James Wan and company are leaning in heavily to the farcicality of the entire premise, but amid all the neon-hued ham-handedness is a wildly uneven narrative that seems compelled to crush viewers under as many storylines they can fit into its 143(!!) minute runtime. The first 30 minutes or so overwhelmed with exposition that it’s like the movie stayed up all night before a big exam to cram in as much backstory as possible. So it could then spend the rest of the time cramming in even more backstory along the way.
And while being ridiculous is a practical necessity for a hero whose main superpowers are swimming and talking to fish, Aquaman seems to take some kind of sadistic glee in quadrupling down on it at every conceivable moment. Honestly, I can’t believe that there’s a scene where a Pitbull song that samples Toto’s “Africa” starts playing as Jason Momoa’s Aquaman flies over the Sahara Desert and it’s somehow one of the film’s more restrained moments.
Anyway, most of the story centers around some royal Atlantean back-stabbing and treachery as Aquaman’s half brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), tries to rush through an undersea alliance under dubious means so he can lead an attack on the surface world. Mera (Amber Heard), the king’s daughter of different undersea kingdom, is supposed to marry Orm, but comes to the surface to talk Aquaman into stopping him. He’s reluctant to care, opting for his life as Arthur Curry, a land-dweller who spends extensive periods of time swimming around and stopping literal pirates. It might not be glamorous, but keeps him away from all that highfalutin ocean drama.
Speaking of those pirates, that’s another storyline entirely. Early on, when we get the film’s first action sequence as a reward for Aquaman’s egregiously narrated origin, some pirates board a Russian nuclear submarine and kill several crew members. Then, everything grinds to a halt so the lead pirate, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, can get his own convoluted backstory rushed through to set up him eventually becoming Black Manta just before Aquaman bursts in to save the day.
When Aquaman does burst in, it’s impossible not to notice he’s wearing jeans, a chain wallet, and leather boots. I realize I’m scrutinizing comic book movie logic here, but… have you ever worn wet jeans? It’s awful. They retain water and instantly become, like, 200 pounds heavier. And boots? Really? I get he’s a super-powered swimmer but it seems like footwear like that would really slow you down. Then again Mera, who lives her life almost entirely underwater, had on heels the entire time. So, clearly nothing matters.
While I’m on the subject, Mera’s entire design seemed like it was some kind of stylized riff on The Little Mermaid, highlighted (pun intended) by her cartoonishly saturated red hair. Yes, I know that’s how her character looks in the comic, but there’s a reason it’s called an adaptation. Being loyal to a fault is a constant, continuous pitfall for comic book movies, after all. And Aquaman is a master class in that overindulgence. Looking at you, Black Manta’s helmet.
Also, though Mera is a high-ranking member of the undersea elite, she knows delightfully little of the surface world, so when her and Aquaman traipse across exotic locations around the globe in the second act (cue Pitbull track), she’s instantly reduced to yet another born sexy yesterday trope. Oh, look. She’s eating flowers! Isn’t that adorable? She doesn’t know what a flower is.
It is unfortunate that Aquaman ends up collapsing under its own kaleidoscope of absurdity. Wan’s creation of the undersea realm was impressively inventive (Mera’s heels notwithstanding), and it did culminate into a final battle that was pretty spectacular. Had they not tried to include an exhaustive history of Aquaman, his parents, the Atlantean monarchy, a brewing war, a half-hearted Indiana Jones subplot, and a fully-formed storyline about Black Manta, it wouldn’t have felt like getting the bends* once the credits finally rolled.
Given that there is enough story here to comfortably fill a trilogy, it makes me wonder if these repeatedly disastrous cinematic outings, save for Wonder Woman, are making Warner Bros. leery of committing any further to this particular iteration of the DCEU. Maybe Wan just wanted to get as much of the story in there as possible, unsure if he’d be able to revisit this world. Though the Warner Bros. DC mega-franchise might have finally shed itself of Zack Snyder’s callow morosity — symbolized here by Aquaman losing that asinine five-pointed trident — whatever they’ve got going in its place clearly isn’t working either.
*(I’ve never had the bends so honestly I don’t know what that feels like)
Aquaman is now playing in theaters everywhere.