To say that the current lineup (prior to AQUAMAN) of DC Extended Universe films have been disappointing would feel like an understatement to a lot of people. What started out as an inevitable attempt to compete with rival company Marvel Studios and their MCU films completely disintegrated into the prime example of what not to do when creating a shared cinematic universe. When MAN OF STEEL and SUICIDE SQUAD first premiered, I remember liking them initially as “passable” films, but those films have not aged well in the years since, and while I still give MAN OF STEEL credit for what it tried to do, I can’t remember the last time I even watched that film or SUICIDE SQUAD in its entirety, willingly or otherwise. The less said about BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, the better; but the real tragedy of these subpar films comes in the disappointing arrival of last year’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, a film that should’ve been a much bigger deal than it ended up being, and the studio suits in charge of the DCEU have no one to blame but themselves. While I could write an entire article about what DC could’ve done different and how Marvel did things right, the DCEU is trudging along with a new entry – a solo film based on Aquaman. With this shared universe already on life support for me, it would take more than just a “passable” film to get me excited for it again. Does AQUAMAN accomplish this?
In the aftermath of the events of JUSTICE LEAGUE and the defeat of Steppenwolf, Arthur Curry – b.k.a. Aquaman (played by Jason Momoa) – has found himself quite the following on the surface world, and has continued establishing his reputation for heroic underwater theatrics. Prior to the opening action scene, Aquaman recounts the story of how he came to be: how his parents (played by Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison) met, how his mother’s homeworld of Atlantis came to disapprove of the union and its fruits, and how his mother returned to Atlantis to protect her family, never to return. Thinking his mother dead, Aquaman wants nothing to do with Atlantis, even as Princess Mera (played by Amber Heard) tracks him down to convince him to challenge the current king of Atlantis – his half-brother Orm (played by Patrick Wilson) – before he successfully unites the seven underwater kingdoms to launch an all-out attack on the surface world. But why would Aquaman want to rule over the same people that killed his mother?
The first thing I need to point out is that a film of this nature, an origin story wrapped in universe building and progression, really belonged before JUSTICE LEAGUE, but alas, here we are. This is a simple concept that Marvel got right the first time, so I truly don’t understand why DC couldn’t follow the same formula. It certainly would’ve helped ingratiate the audience to Jason Momoa and his portrayal of Aquaman a lot sooner, so as to make his presence in JUSTICE LEAGUE familiar and exciting. Instead, being introduced to him in the limited screen time he received in that film did a disservice to the character, considering that DC had a solo film already planned for him – and to be quite honest, it’s a pretty darn good one to boot!
The first thing that makes the film so good is – unsurprisingly – Jason Momoa himself. Not being a GAME OF THRONES fan, the first time I ever saw Momoa in anything was JUSTICE LEAGUE, and like I said above, while I did enjoy him overall, he wasn’t on screen long enough for me to really have a true opinion on him. Here, Momoa takes the baton of ‘leading man’ and runs straight to the finish line. He really has a phenomenal screen presence befitting of the lead, able to grab the audience’s attention through every one-liner, through every show of brute force, and through every action scene. Momoa impressed me so much throughout AQUAMAN that I now see big things for his future. I could definitely imagine him as the next great action star if his career holds up. This was just great work overall, and better than I was expecting from a DCEU film.
Not to be outdone, AQUAMAN also contains great supporting performances by the likes of Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (as Black Manta), Willem Dafoe (who I was pleasantly surprised to see, playing Nuidis Vulko, Atlantis’ royal counselor), and Dolph Lundgren (of all people). I was particularly impressed with Wilson and Dafoe’s performances, and thought that both came off very well overall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Patrick Wilson as an antagonist before, so as King Orm he was able to show a side of himself that hasn’t been explored before, which made the performance come off fresh. As for Dafoe, I’ve been a fan of him for years, and while I (selfishly) wish he had more screen time, I thought he made every minute count while he was on screen, as he always does.
Director James Wan decided to go the simple route here (similar to how the filmmakers behind BUMBLEBEE made that film), going with a screenplay that doesn’t have much to give us on the complex side – but that’s okay. AQUAMAN was meant to be a ‘popcorn flick,’ and it does a tremendous job at it. The story is easy to follow, the action scenes are fast-paced and entertaining, the film itself is tightly edited to reduce any lags in the story, and the performances are better than they have any right to be. However, where the film suffers is in the CGI department. While a few of the set pieces are done well (particularly the first scene in Atlantis), the majority of the CGI suffered from what I call ‘Green Lantern-syndrome,’ essentially looking more like mid-2000s video game graphics than an actual movie. This caused many of the action sequences to not have the required suspension-of-disbelief needed for them to work; while – as stated above – I found the action sequences overall to be entertaining, one look at some of these CGI graphics is enough to instantly take you out of the moment, thereby decreasing (or downright erasing) the emotional investment attached to it. For a studio as successful as Warner Bros. is, you’d think that this is something that would’ve already been rectified since the disaster that was GREEN LANTERN; but alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Nevertheless, AQUAMAN was an absolutely pleasant surprise. It managed to feel like a proper comic book film and shows what Warner Bros. and DC is capable of if they just stick to the formula. This was a star-making performance for Jason Momoa, supported by a great ensemble cast. While the CGI was lacking, the action scenes themselves flow well and manage to keep the audiences glued to the screen. The film itself is well paced allowing the story to maximize its somewhat simplistic potential. In other words, AQUAMAN checks off all of the boxes under the ‘Popcorn Filck’ category, which makes it a heck of a good time. Needless to say, it’s the best film of the DC Extended Universe by a country mile, and if after all that you’re still hesitating taking the leap into Atlantis, just go for it – you’ll just might be astonished at what you find.
2018 • 143 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Wilem Dafoe, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison