by Thom Yee
Ask any of us comicbook fans, any of us REAL comicbook fans, whether or not we’re happy that there are so many superhero movies right now and most of us will tell you that of course it’s something that makes us happy. It’s great. It’s great that the things we like are now so popular. Ask any of us fans if we’re surprised that they’re so popular, though, and most of us will probably say that yes, we’re also very surprised. And it’s not that we’re surprised to see normal, everyday people getting into the same kinds of stories we’ve been reading about for most of our lives, it’s just kind of shocking to us that we could ever get here. The superhero movie age we live in right now is truly astonishing, a promised land of sorts, and the type of thing we comicbook people had imagined might happen in some other reality but thought could never happen in this one.
For nerds like us, nerds who are usually underdogs at the best of times and completely cast aside at the worst, the sort of acceptance that superheroes have gained in the mainstream isn’t something we’re used to and it’s the furthest thing we would expect to happen to something we hold so dearly. We’re more used to having to hide things like our comicbook fanboy-(and girl)-isms. Nowadays not only do normal people know who Iron Man is and know why Captain America matters (beyond the obvious jingoistic outer trappings of the character), many people openly questioned which side of theirs they would have taken in a philosophical argument on responsible superheroing [see: Captain America: Civil War]. Nowadays some normal people are just as likely to fight over whether or not Thanos was right [to kill half the universe] as they are to talk about how sexy he is. Nowadays most normal people even understand where the comicbook movie universe lines are drawn, raving over the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and leaving discussions of the until recently Fox-owned X-Men movies mostly to the side because they make no sense and are mostly terrible. And when it comes to the DC Extended Universe (or whatever they’re calling it now), well, nobody likes the DCEU.
Ridiculed, scorned, and maligned far more often than he’s ever been lauded, respected, or glorified, Aquaman, for most of his existence in the popular culture, has been the guy who breathes underwater, rides an abnormally large seahorse, and talks to fish. Those may not be the worst traits to have for your sea princesses or Hanna-Barbara-esque mascot types, but they’re not the characteristics most of us are looking for when it comes to our superheroes. Aquaman can’t fly, he doesn’t do anything interesting like shoot energy beams, and his major powers are, basically, breathing and talking. In most of the big superhero team-ups, Aquaman was usually just kind of there, maybe proving himself to be a little bit useful when something happened with water but usually accomplishing little else. He’s always been a character with just enough going on that DC kept trying though, usually keeping him in or around the Justice League and always giving him his own monthly comicbook, and maybe it’s precisely the marginalization Aquaman’s gone through for all of these years that’s made him someone that at least a few of us comicbook fans would root for. And now that Aquaman’s being played by Jason Momoa, I don’t think anyone’s exactly feeling sorry for him anymore.
What’s it about?
The son of a queen from the fabled undersea nation of Atlantis and a lighthouse keeper from the surface world, young Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has never quite fit in either world despite his ability to live and breathe (and laugh and love!) underwater and on land. Possessed of great physical gifts and the ability to communicate telepathically with sea life, Arthur has, nevertheless, grown to accept his role as “the Aquaman” after his experiences defending the world as part of the Justice League. But now his half-brother Orm, the self-styled Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson) has united the undersea kingdoms under his own rule and vowed to wage war on the surface world, and only Arthur, with the assistance of the warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), can stop this threat from the deep!
The creation of Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger, Aquaman first appeared all the way back in November of 1941, a mere month behind Wonder Woman’s October debut, and only two and three years after Batman and Superman respectively, but even though he’s been here for nearly as long as the aforementioned trinity of heroes that define the DC universe, Aquaman’s entire modern image in our popular culture was formed primarily through his role in the Super Friends cartoon of the mid-‘70s. And unfortunately for our boy Arthur, it’s through this portrayal on the Super Friends that he suffered considerably in comparison to the show’s other heroes and gained a reputation for being mostly useless. He was never as strong or tough as Superman or Wonder Woman, never as dark and brooding as Batman, never as fast as the Flash, and never really that interesting on his own at all. And that’s the way Aquaman stayed for decades, but in the mid-‘90s, at a time when DC was making big, game-changing moves with their biggest heroes, killing Superman, breaking Batman’s back, and replacing the Flash, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow with newer, younger versions, Aquaman got a revision of his own, going from a bland, underpowered underwater hero to… a guy with a hook for a hand. Plus a beard, long, messy hair, and a bad attitude.
Eventually, through a series of cross-universal machinations that never made that much sense (and may not even count in the ever-shifting official continuity anymore), Aquaman would get his hand back, cut his hair short again, go back to a more chipper version of himself, and start carrying a big trident around on the reg, but when it came time for the original founders of the DC Extended Universe of movies (i.e., Zack Snyder) to put their spin on the character, they took inspiration from all over the character’s history in making the big-screen version of Aquaman into the biggest, baddest, and inarguably best looking of the DC movie heroes (shave off that beard and he’s actually way prettier than Gal Gadot [though still not quite as pretty as Chris Pine]).
But if the traditional Aquaman has always been the weak link of the Justice League, the movie Aquaman has outperformed every DC movie universe hero in the one thing that matters most: Dollars. Currently sitting at a worldwide gross of more than $1.14 billion, not only has Aquaman made more money than Wonder Woman at $822 million, Batman v Superman at $873 million, and The Dark Knight Returns at $1.08 billion, Aquaman’s also made more than almost every single-character-focused superhero movie, including all of the MCU single-character movies other than Iron Man 3, and it’s become the 20th highest grossing movie of all time, superhero movie or not! For f*cking Aquaman! And on its way to making all the money, changing the conversation and putting to rest any long held jokes about the character, Aquaman has also rekindled hopes and provided a new direction for the once flagging shared DC movie universe.
Now if only it was any good.
Is it any Good?
Aquaman is a movie I’ve felt extremely conflicted before its release and feel still feel quite conflicted about now. In exploring the Atlantean roots of the character we’re getting a movie that embraces Aquaman’s more exotic, mythic, far-out-there elements, and that’s neat, but in admitting that there’s been an undersea race of beings here on Earth this entire time, we’re also getting a huge departure from the much more grounded take of Man of Steel, the movie that kicked off this entire universe simply with asking us how we would react if a superpowered demi-god suddenly landed on our planet. Then again, if you’re a die-hard fan of Man of Steel like me, if you’re one of us weirdos who somehow found incredible sensitivity and profound meaning in that movie, then you’ve had a long time to, essentially, mourn the passing of that once promising world. By the time Aquaman opened in December it had been more than a year since the disappointing release of Justice League, the movie that, as much as we all loved it here, heralded a pretty dramatic shift in tone for the universe, one far away from reality and much more toward the type of cartoony superheroics that dominates the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That’s pretty much where Aquaman picks up as it’s a movie with very little in common with the world we live in. Instead of tough moral decisions we have megalomaniacal supervillainy built on only the barest of justifications. Instead of real-world consequences, we have massive undersea battles that would, in a world like ours, probably destroy significant portions of the Earth’s ecosystem. And instead of internal self-reflection, no matter how heavy handed it could often be in the earlier DCEU movies, we have a story with pretty much everything on the surface and, ironically, nothing in the depths. So… y’know… if you like crazy action, undersea explosions, and a whole lotta crazy crap on the walls, Aquaman has everything — Giant, talking sea monsters. Crab people. Dolph Lundgren.
It’s mostly that last point, the surface-level storytelling, that bothers me most with Aquaman though. Aquaman is a step towards the crowd-pleasing bombastic action set pieces and wacky hijinks of the MCU, but it leaves out one of the most important parts of why we, everyday moviegoers and ardent comicbook fans alike, don’t just like but love many of the Marvel movies, and that’s heart. The MCU movies may, in many ways, be the furthest things from social reality, but they at least get the characters right. We care about Thor even though he’s a big goof caught in a Death Metal acid trip, we care about the Guardians of the Galaxy even though almost everything they do is for laughs, we care about Ant-Man even though some of his biggest battles go no further than the edge of a child’s tabletop train set, and the reason why we care about them is because there’s more to these heroes than just big, goofy action. There’s something there in all of these characters no matter how fundamentally ridiculous they seem, something we can feel deep inside because they’re acted so earnestly by their leads and something we can see and recognize because the things they do are cool and are informed by who they are, who we want them to be, and who we are and want to be as a people. And I just didn’t see that in Aquaman.
Before we go any further, I should say that, at the very least, I don’t think Aquaman is a waste of time. In fact, I liked the movie and don’t think it’s a massive disappointment. It just doesn’t do much new, I didn’t care that much about what was going on, and I don’t think it has anything to say.
What I do think Aquaman has going for it is a certain sense of cool. Not the calm, collected, confident sense of cool you might think of things that are actually cool, but more the spastic, all-over-the-place, barely in control kind of cool you might be looking for in a movie that fully embraces the notion of an undersea superhero and kingdom. There are cool moments, cool scenes and set pieces, and cool ideas all over Aquaman, especially in the character of Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry. Probably the strongest move the collective of DC movie creators ever made in bringing Aquaman to the big screen was casting Jason Momoa in the lead role as it almost immediately extinguishes the idea of Aquaman as a joke. Momoa simply has the rare type of men-want-to-be-him, women-want-to-be-with-him, and everyone-no-matter-what-gender-or-preference-would-probably-leave-whoever-they’re-with-just-for-a-chance-at-him presence that completely drowns out any other thoughts. He’s handsome, buff, big, cut, intimidating, and yet approachable and warm all at once, and he’s been a standout both as a co-star in a superhero ensemble and as the lead of his own superhero franchise simply by being himself. That he’s also a reasonable actor who seems sincerely into being Aquaman is just the cherry on top.
But all that up there in that single last paragraph is pretty much everything I think is good about the Aquaman movie. It’s enough to make the movie worth seeing if you’re into it, but nowhere near enough to make the movie stand out or a must see. The blueprint of Aquaman is a strong one. It’s got all the concepts, all the story direction, and all of the world building necessary for this type of movie to work and mayby even be good, but it has none of the connective tissue between those things to make any of it matter. The relationship with Arthur and his father and especially his long-lost mother, Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman, is the central emotional piece of the movie, but I never felt anything about his parents or Arthur’s relationship with them beyond noting that the opening action scene with Atlanna was pretty good (though not really good). You have the idea that losing his mother had an effect on who Arthur would become, but none of the emotional content. Instead we’re rushed through scenes that suggest these ideas without taking the time for the ideas to sink in or resonate or become something we feel. Similarly, the key point of romantic interest between Arthur and Mera really didn’t leave me feeling anything, and it’s not for lack of chemistry between the two actors so much as nothing they did together really sold me on the idea that they would want to be together. I honestly felt there was more between them in the one or two minutes they spent together in Justice League. Their relationship in Aquaman is so devoid of feeling that I would even bet that a lot of you wouldn’t even remember what Mera’s name is if I hadn’t written it just now, and that’s despite her character being the movie’s secondary lead and primary love interest.
And while it might be possible to look at those missing points of emotion as typical of the genre and not necessarily key to Aquaman’s central story, it’s inexcusable when that same lack of feeling also carries all the way through into the movie’s major conflict — the war in Atlantis. There’s all sorts of emotional ground to be explored between Orm, the resentful half-brother who views himself as the rightful ruler, and Arthur, the true heir to the throne of Atlantis who’s never felt acceptance by his people (see: Black Panther), and yet these ideas are only just barely stated in the movie and never followed through to the point of me actually giving a sh*t. I do think it was cool and maybe even clever that the blonde, classically handsome Patrick Wilson is essentially the spitting image of what Aquaman has traditionally looked like in the comics, though. And, oh yeah, there’s also the introduction of Black Manta, another of Arthur’s would-be big, bad villains, but his role in the overall movie is so little, so truncated and ultimately meaningless that the character could have should have been left out entirely.
I do feel compelled to give credit to the creators of Aquaman for the world of Atlantis, which is visually stunning, but even on that note it’s an aspect of the movie I can’t fully get behind. It’s another aspect of the movie poorly served by how Aquaman chooses to tell its story as it’s just a little too far removed from our reality for much of the action to mean anything. Seeing Arthur carry a submarine from deep beneath the sea to the water’s surface carries meaning and communicates something about Aquaman’s power levels. Seeing the characters swimming through the ocean depths at overwhelming speed carries the sense of joy you need to understand the joy inherent in comicbook heroes. The sequence in the Trench is probably the movie’s best, a sequence that’s effective in showing us how unique this world is while introducing just enough of a sense of horror to make us take notice and maybe even care, but then they truly go off the deep end. Seeing an all-out undersea battle between kingdoms made up of sentient crustaceans and reptilian mermen (and women) atop crocodiles and sharks and manta rays and undersea vehicles patterned after octopuses is all just a little too much to see in the first movie. We need to wade into these waters a bit first and get comfortable lest it all become a lot of sound and fury signifying… y’know… weird fish stuff. It’s a kind of cool in the same way listening to your five-year-old cousin make up stories on the spot is often interesting and amusing, but it’s just not going to be the kind of thing I can really invest in in a full-blown feature film. And that’s not even mentioning how coldly traditional, underwhelmingly unoriginal, and ultimately boring Atlantis proves to be as a people and culture.
So should I see it?
From the perspective of three years ago, early 2016, just ahead of the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s tough to look at Aquaman as the lone 2018 release in the DC universe movie schedule without at least a little bit of disappointment. Under the original plan we were supposed to have a Flash movie in addition to Aquaman and be frothing at the mouth for another Justice League which would arrive at the end of 2019. Instead, we didn’t get a Flash movie nor does DC seem to have any idea who could possibly direct it, the first Justice League was a Frankenstein’s monster of two clearly very different directorial visions and went terribly at the box office, Ben Affleck is officially out as Batman, Henry Cavill’s Superman may soon follow.
In that same 2016-18 timespan Marvel has gone from two to three movies a year, bolstered their movie offerings with a strong lineup of streaming TV options, and turned out the fourth highest grossing movie of all time that was also very well received by critics (and our number one movie of 2018!). In comparison, one movie 2018 and a whole slate of failed or abandoned movies has to be very far from away what Warner Bros. had wanted to see from their burgeoning DC movie universe.
But that’s not the narrative that’s surrounded Aquaman since its release late last December. Instead, Aquaman’s gone from unlikely success to box office juggernaut, one that’s reset expectations of the DC universe of movies so much so that hopes for the universe have shifted almost entirely to Aquaman and Wonder Woman instead of DC’s former big guns, Superman and Batman, and the general vibe of the entire universe has moved away from shared to more individual pieces, some of which don’t seem to fit in the same continuity at all. That’s probably a healthier way for the studio to move forward at this point as it relieves each of the individual movies from the need to play nicely together, but I can’t help but look at the success of Aquaman as disappointing for what it means going forward. Because Aquaman is only just good enough to see, and as much as its success may lead to bigger and better box office performances, especially for the worldwide market, it marks a new direction that’s much more bland and much less challenging. For all of their faults, movies like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were at least distinct, whereas Aquaman, as a movie, is a lot like the way we used to look at Aquaman as a character. It’s just kind of there.
Thom’s Aquaman final score