‘Aquaman’ Tries to be Fresh and Goofy but Ends Up Sinking into the Abyss

Aquaman_posterI don’t care what anyone says, Jason Momoa is #NotMyAquaman, that will forever be Vincent Chase from “Entourage.”

“Aquaman” is the sixth installment of the DC Extended Universe, and the first solo film for the titular character (we last saw him in last year’s abomination “Justice League”). Jason Momoa reprises his role as Arthur Curry aka Aquaman, with Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Nicole Kidman also starring. James Wan, known mostly for horror films but also for directing “Furious 7,” directs here.

So the DCEU is a fascinating topic to discuss, because they have no idea what they’re doing with their films. After “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” (I personally really like that film) received mixed reviews and financially underperformed, another critical dud, “Suicide Squad,” was released (although it performed well and actually won an Oscar). But then “Wonder Woman,” one of the best films of 2017 and by-far the only great film of the DCEU, gave us hope things were on the right track. However we were then handed “Justice League,” a film plagued with reshoots and rushed a production schedule (so the WB execs could keep their bonuses) and instead of uniting the most popular comic book heroes of all time and crushing box office records, the film flamed out and lost the studio $75 million. “Aquaman” was seen as a course correction, with WB chairman Toby Emmerich going on record saying they’re going to try and make good films moving forward (so makes you wonder what their goals were before). And the pieces seemed to be there: James Wan is a risk-taking filmmaker, some people liked Momoa a lot in “Justice League” and the new focus seems to have humbled Warner Bros. So why is “Aquaman” more of the same DC crap?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some things this film does differently and some it does right. First things first, it doesn’t really look and feel like a DCEU film and that is because Wan has chosen to make it not only not grim and gloomy, but infuse such corniness that at times this feels as if it belongs in the mid-2000s. While Marvel has its quips, this film has…I wouldn’t even call them one-liners, they’re just kind of cheesy replies that characters have to one another. Example, a pirate is taking over a ship and says to the captain, “let me make you a deal: I won’t tell you how to captain, you don’t tell me how to pirate” and then he stabs him. Like, what. The line and delivery are awful, but I think that’s the point(?) Most of the time this lighter, goofy tone didn’t work for me (and my audience only had one hardy laugh throughout) but I could see someone appreciating the dialogue being so knowingly bad.

Also a random thing I noticed: on multiple occasions, scenes end with bad guys exploding through the wall. Like, the exposition gets dumped and the screenwriters didn’t know how to transition the scene, so they just had something go boom.

Performance wise, again, no real idea what to make of anyone. Jason Momoa continues to give a committed performance and has cemented Aquaman as a badass, not the nerd who talks to fish like was the joke back in the day. Amber Heard is fine as Mera, it is nice to see her hold her own in the fight scenes alongside Momoa, but Patrick Wilson just feels wasted as Orm, Aquaman’s half-brother who has been sitting on the throne of Atlantis (the comparisons to Killmonger and Loki will be inevitable, but not for the reasons I’m sure DC wants). Nicole Kidman isn’t necessarily mailing it in, but she is given such corny lines of dialogue to deliver that she struggles to keep a straight face sometimes.

The person I was most disappointed by is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Black Manta, a mercenary with high-tech weapons. A comedian by trade, Abdul-Mateen, who was the best part of “Baywatch” and received praise for his work in “The Get Down,” was an interesting choice to play Aquaman’s arch-nemesis, but it just doesn’t work. His motivation is cliché, his interactions stale and he lacks any true charisma. Had they made him like, say, Killmonger, a bad guy with some attitude who is in love with his weapons, then I think they could have had something cool but instead we get scene after scene of him moping around and saying “killing Aquaman will be my reward.”

The action here is a mixed bag. When it is hand-to-hand combat, the sequences are a lot of fun. Wan spins his camera and has some interesting and engaging tracking/transition shots, and the fighting is clean-cut and coherent. However the film suffers from the same thing every single other DC film does and that is no matter what has transpired over the first two hours (oh, right, this thing is a needles 143 minutes), the finale has to include a bunch of CGI monsters getting tossed around a wasteland, as the audience struggles to figure out what the hell is happening on screen.

And as I just touched on, this film is 143 minutes and in no way needed to be. They stuff it to the brim with so much mythology and mini boss battles that nothing feels worth your time, and they should have just had Patrick Wilson building his ocean army to attack the land while Momoa and Heard try and find the ancient Trident of Atlan, and eventually things come to head. While that is technically what happens, the amount of rinse-and-repeat filler in between is just numbing. Oh, and the sound mixing on the underwater dialogue scenes isn’t very good, sometimes I was straining to understand the conversations.

“Aquaman” was a disappointment for me, which seems to be par for the course for DC films (sans “BvS” and “Wonder Woman”). The whole light and cheesy attitude never clicked for me, and with so much seemingly pointless events going on it was hard to get invested. Momoa and Heard try their best, and I commend Wan’s ambition and attempts to separate this from other superhero films, but at the end of the day this just ended up belly-flopping.

Critic’s Grade: C– 

Warner Bros.

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