'Aquaman' Review

Franchise fatigue shows no signs of setting in

January 4, 2019

If you had told me five years ago that the most successful post-Nolan DC movie would have been a standalone film about the guy who talks to fish, I would've laughingly dismissed you with a "sure, Jan," and gone about my day.

And yet! Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa and directed by James Wan, is on track to gross more than $900 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most successful of the movies that make up the oft-maligned-yet-(almost)-always-profitable DCEU. As one of the nation's foremost DC defenders, I have to say: I'm a bit shocked.

Don't get me wrong: Aquaman is fun. It's a lot of fun! Especially if you are willing to shut your brain off and enjoy the movie on the level it is intended. It is, more or less, a mid-tier MCU actioner with the narrative momentum of a The Fast and the Furious picture.

Momoa is both the star and the best thing about the movie. His take on Aquaman—as king of the sea bros, a dude who just wants to throw down a beer and whale on some whale-hunters—is the best possible iteration of the character. Better than the grim-n-gritty one-handed version from the 1990s; better than the campy cartoon version from the 1970s. Indeed, my favorite moment in the film comes early on, during a largely dialogue-free montage of selfies taken by some biker dudes with the fish man. Momoa's Arthur Curry grimaces, then cracks a smile, then starts pounding brews and throwing back shots. It's a great little character moment, one that tells us more about what this sea-man is like than any jabbering could have.

Curry has no interest in becoming the king of Atlantis, despite Meera's (Amber Heard) implorations. She wants him to reclaim the throne from his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who hopes to unite the Atlantean clans, proclaim himself Ocean Master, and wage war on the surface world that is polluting their homes and destroying their way of life. If a few billion humans must die so a few million Atlanteans must live, so be it.

Orm is a solid villain in that his motivations are reasonable: his jihad against the surface world is self-defense. That he spends most of the film murdering, or attempting to murder, the other rulers of the Atlantean sects suggests his plan isn't fully thought out—the rules of the game he's playing are, shall we say, opaque—but that's neither here nor there. Why would I quibble about Robert's Rules of Underwater Order when I can watch a trident-wielding half-man, half-sea-man ride a Lovecraftian hell-monster into battle on behalf of a race of crab-men?

Aquaman is by no means a perfect film. There's a subplot involving an extraneous villain named Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who serves no purpose other than to add a couple of action beats to the film. I'm not opposed to extra action beats, per se, but the character is too lame to be effective and, at a patience-straining 140-plus minutes, Black Manta's lameness grates. That he seems primed to return for a sequel—and there will definitely be a sequel; this franchise is suddenly too valuable to scrap for spare parts—is discouraging.

If I'm being honest, I'm also a bit disappointed that Aquaman didn't hit on some of the themes developed by prior DCEU movies. I know, I know: The studio wanted to distance itself from the disaster that was Justice League. I get that I'm alone in yearning for the philosophical sophistication of the Snyderverse. But a line or two about Superman's example encouraging Arthur to wield the trident in defense of his adopted homeland would've been nice. Maybe next time.

Still: Aquaman is a lot of fun, Jason Momoa has a huge and deserved win under his belt, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the fate of this franchise. At the very least, I won't laugh when the guy who talks to fish comes up in the conversation any longer.

Published under: Movie Reviews