Written by Rick Warren / gfn21
After decades of being made fun of, Aquaman was reimagined in Justice League. The stern blonde King of Atlantis was nowhere to be found, with a rebellious and loud new version of Arthur Curry in his place. Love or hate the change, this new version of Arthur has been positioned as the DCEU’s Aquaman. With that in mind, we can assume some of the goals for the Aquman solo film were to further change public opinion on the character, and to prove that this different version of Arthur was a wise decision. Luckily for viewers and fans, it does both of those things, as one of the best things about the movie is the titular hero himself. Arthur is consistently funny and likable, providing a great contrast to the typical Atlantean royalty. His fight style is unique and extremely entertaining to watch as well, and the well-shot action scenes do an outstanding job of showing that off. Further, his relationship with Mera and the clear chemistry between the lead actors stops this from being like the first Thor movie, as every moment Aquaman and Mera share is a blast to watch. The movie is not without its flaws, however.
While they look great, the villains don’t come close to being as intriguing as the heroes and remain very one-dimensional antagonists from beginning to end. The film is also as formulaic as a superhero movie can be, and every twist can be seen coming ahead of time. Rather than being issues contained to part of the movie, they persist throughout the entirety of Arthur’s adventure to become King, and the problems do hold the movie back from being something special. Regardless, Aquaman is a good movie that is worth a watch in theaters. It may not be perfect, but its strengths do outweigh its flaws. Atlantis is visually gorgeous, the heroes are excellent, there are plenty of laughs and the action is awesome.
It certainly isn’t at the level of Infinity War, Black Panther or Into the Spider-Verse, but that’s okay; Aquaman is still a quality film that prioritizes fun over everything else.
For a score and a full review (with spoilers), keep reading!
- WARNING: SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT -
A Bumpy Ride...
When the people around me are shouting out “that’s his mom” during what is supposed to be the biggest twist in the film, there’s a problem.
Played by Nicole Kidman, Atlanna is the mother of both Arthur and the film’s main antagonist, Orm. Her relationship with Arthur’s father makes up the opening ten minutes of the film, and it’s a well-done sequence that sets the tone for what the film will be like. After this opening, however, Atlanna is gone. The characters state that she was sacrificed to the monsters of the Trench, and as if an off-screen death for such a key character wasn’t already unlikely, Arthur and Mera’s quest leading them directly to the Trench makes the twist blatantly obvious. By the time a masked figure rescues Mera, there is no surprise to be had.
That feeling persists throughout the entirety of the film, as Aquaman is an origin story that makes no attempt to do something new. Arthur’s first loss to Orm, Orm’s violent climb to power and Orm discovering Vulko’s betrayal are just some of the many key moments that one can see coming a mile away. The flashbacks to Arthur’s training are extremely reminiscent of Diana’s training in Wonder Woman, as is the history lesson about Atlantis. None of the named characters ever feel like they are in danger, either, something that makes the incredibly large stakes of a war with the surface world feel small. While there is nothing wrong with sticking to the basics in an origin story, there is nothing special about it, either.
The film’s other problem is, unsurprisingly, its villains. While not nearly as bad as most origin story antagonists, the villains of Aquaman are the most frustrating because they had so much potential to be great. To be clear, both Black Manta and King Orm (or Ocean Master, as he takes his comic book title and signature helmet design later in the film) are fine; they just aren’t anything more than that. They both get the job done and look as if they were ripped right off the page of a comic, and it was nice to see the filmmakers fully embrace the character designs fans have grown to love.
Black Manta is present for the first half of the film, and once he gets his suit he puts it to use in a great fight with Arthur. Sadly, though, that’s all he’ll be remembered for; one cool action sequence. He’s as flat as a character could be, with the singular purpose of killing Arthur for revenge. He’s never likable and he sees no development, and a scene showing that he is something more than a heartless, vengeful pirate would have gone a long way to making his character more memorable. With the mid-credits scene hinting that he’ll be back, hopefully we’ll see a more refined version of his character in the future. As of now, his story feels rushed and he feels like he was forced into the movie.
As for Ocean Master, he’s exactly what you’d expect. He conquers each kingdom one by one and he’s a formidable fighter, but like Manta, he’s impossible to root for. Demanding a war with the surface due to their consistent pollution of the ocean killing Atlanteans, his motivation is understandable enough. However, it is glanced over and only shown in a few images. A scene where Orm is shown losing someone he loves due to humans would have greatly improved his argument and made his hatred for humanity understandable, but we never get that. Further, his hatred for Arthur due to his birth leading to the “death” of their mother should be great motivation. Once again, though, it is only glanced over. Orm watch his mother’s sacrifice or showing some anger at Atlantis for putting her to death should have been seen in the film, but it never comes up. This is very much an Aquaman story, and Orm’s character suffers for it. Still, Orm surviving the final fight (plus his choice to back down because of his mother’s return) and Arthur asking to talk things out with him makes for the one genuinely surprising moment in the film. Hopefully it goes somewhere in a sequel, because if it does, Ocean Master can become a great character instead of wasted potential.
...But A Fun Ride Nonetheless.
It may be formulaic, and the villains may fall short of what they could have been but make no mistake, Aquaman is a good movie.
Many of its strengths come back to Aquaman himself, as this version of the character perfectly balances all the politics and war going on in the sea. He’s different from the people of Atlantis, and not only is that a key point made in the movie, but it’s the thing that keeps the movie afloat. Arthur is hilarious, relatable and badass, and Jason Momoa is the embodiment of all those things. He’s the perfect fit for this different take on the hero, and he delivers in every scene he’s in. His relationship with his father is well-established and his powers are showcased perfectly. When he makes his epic return to Atlantis with the full power of the ocean at his disposal and his classic costume, Arthur truly becomes Aquaman. After seeing this movie, the general audience won’t be laughing at this character; something everyone involved in the project should view as a success.
Joining Aquaman at the top of the “reasons to see this movie” list is Princess Mera, as she steals the show numerous times throughout the film’s lengthy runtime. Whether she’s impaling some bad guys with wine (yes, you read that right... it’s super cool) or rescuing Arthur’s father with her ability to manipulate water, Mera is shown to be a truly powerful hero and more than a sidekick/love interest. Seeing her slowly learn about the surface world is genuinely funny, and her relationship with Arthur is believable and sweet. Part of what makes her such a standout character is Amber Heard’s performance, as her chemistry with Jason Momoa is always noticeable. The scene the two share in Italy is particularly excellent. One can only hope to see a lot more of the two going forward, as the new King and Queen of Atlantis are a winning combination.
The other defining attribute of Aquaman is its sense of style. Director James Wan had a clear vision when making that film, and it is brilliantly realized here. Atlantis is truly beautiful, and all its massive creatures come to life in a memorable way. Using some great practical effects and plenty of stellar CGI, it is amazing how spectacular a movie set almost entirely underwater looks. There’s plenty of attention to detail here, and it helps to make Atlantis a worthy addition to the growing number of unique superhero locations.
James Wan delivers on the action side of things as well, as every fight is cool and intense. With plenty of unique angles rarely seen in superhero movie battles, the action is one of the film’s biggest strengths. Arthur hits like a truck and has a fighting style that incorporates slams and throws, and Wan does a great job of showing the weight behind every hit. Mera’s speedy fight style is given the same level of love, as the way the camera is positioned gives viewers a chance to see how quick she really is. Manta’s lasers are well-used in his fight with Aquaman in Italy, and the final battle being on land is a smart way to both give Arthur an advantage and slow down his last encounter with Orm. Combined with the film’s gorgeous visuals, Aquaman’s action is just as much of a star as any member of the cast.
It isn’t perfect, but Aquaman is a good entry in the DCEU. Much closer to Man of Steel and Wonder Woman than Suicide Squad, there’s a clear, un-compromised vision present throughout the movie. The lead heroes are great alone and terrific together, and even if their journey is predictable, it is one worth going on due to the gorgeous visuals and well-choreographed action. With this likely set to be the first entry in a series, one can only hope that the surviving villains are better developed in Aquaman 2. If that happens, the cast remains intact and Wan returns to direct, there’s no chance that the sequel doesn’t surpass the original. As of now, though, this Aquaman gets the job done.
Though it has some obvious flaws, Aquaman is a truly fun movie that is best experienced in theaters.
Arthur and Mera! +2.5
Outstanding action sequences +1.5
Mind-blowing practical effects and CGI +1
Villains are wasted potential -1
Predictable and formulaic plot -.5
FINAL SCORE: 3.5/5