Leave it to James Wan to make a DC universe movie worth watching. From all the controversies between Zack Snyder to David Ayer to Joss Whedon, from Henry Cavill to Ben Affleck and Superman to Batman, it took a character who could talk to fish and a director who made SAW and Fast and the Furious 7 to make audiences have a good time.
I went into this movie as a typical wet blanket. My cynicism had conquered any expectations from superhero films, much less DC ventures. My cynicism lost, and this film is everything you could possibly hope for in something as stupid as an Aquaman film.
To start, the tone has shifted from dark and gritty to fun and cheesy. Jason Momoa’s casting was always an inversion of public perception of Aquaman (as seen in Superfriends), but where Snyder had an Aquaman cut from the same cloth as Momoa’s work on Game of Thrones or Conan, Wan utilized Momoa’s zestful energy to help with pacing a globetrotting expansive adventure. We aren’t following a viking anymore, we are following a rock star.
This tone and change in direction help engage the audience in what’s going on, and they needed all the help they could get here. The film is loaded with exposition every other scene and loaded with character moments that, while charming, involve a distracting amount of special effects. When the plot is happening the film feels very restricted.
So where does it breathe? In the visuals, the pacing, and the action. Wan chose to have the film look and feel different for each of the major segments, and the changes make a tired origin story feel fresh. Instead of holding the film back, the water provides kinetic avenues for the film to explore. Each action scene feels different. For instance, the arena fight between Aquaman and his brother Orm is a loaded fight from start to finish. With stakes firmly in place and the odds confirmed, the kingdom of Atlantis cheers and boos while the two men slug it out. Another action scene involves the locale of Sicily (filmed on a set and green screen shot of course, to a discredit) where Aquaman and his partner Mera separately try to survive an ambush. The film goes into wide city spanning shots to showcase transitions between the two. Every character involved utilizes aquatic themed super powers in a completely unique way. Including a vengeful Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who clearly is having the most fun on screen.
Visually the film abandons realism (and fails when it tries) and goes for a Speed Racer-esque approach. You also see Finding Nemo, Tron, Fifth Element, and Temple of Doom and even horror films like Alien influenced the design of the film. This and the action work together prove to be better than the sum of its parts. Combined with an almost alien synth score combined with a traditional heroic score, it’s easy to feel enthralled at everybody moment. Until something boring happens. Until a Pitbull song shows up and you laugh it all away.
The characters feel shallow, but just enough screen time is given to them to make their moments passable. See the trend here? This film has a lot of flaws, but the flaws are open and honest. The film is an origin story like we have seen for well over a decade; however, it tries to speed by the dreadful moments to give us something new to see in the next scene. It’s always moving, it’s always breathing.
So random stuff: the performances are good. Nothing spectacular. A lot of it is talking heads because they’re “swimming” but I don’t think any actor is phoning in their performance, it feels like everyone wanted to be there. Which is more than I could say for most DCEU films. The first portion of the movie is probably the worst, but like the action Wan does a great job transitioning and knows not to dwell on a mediocre moment.
To tack onto this at the end, I will say I’m doing another film a disservice by praising this one. Wonder Woman was the real start of good DC films. This film is another of many steps needed for DC to make great films, but as of now, I think I’m okay settling for good. If you have even a slight interest in Aquaman as a franchise, go see this. If you don’t and you think it’s another CGI infested superhero film, well, you’re not wrong.