Going into Aquaman, my hopes were reasonably high. From what I’ve seen, the film has been successful with fans and critics alike, and I hoped it might be a turning point for DC films after the abysmal debacle of Justice League. James Wan is an accomplished director, and the trailers have been fantastic. I had all the reason to think this movie was going to be great. I was, however, sorely disappointed.
First, let’s talk about the positives. The costume designs are stunningly amazing. Ocean Master, Black Manta, and Aquaman himself all look as if they’ve been ripped directly from the comics. Even some of the other costumes, like those of the Atlantian soldiers, embrace their inherent goofiness. James Wan understands the nature of what he is making, and he’s not afraid of the colorful, fanciful, wacky nature of Aquaman and his surrounding mythology. In contrast to Man of Steel’s gray, desaturated color palate, Aquaman features bright, deep, colorful visuals, and its embrace of the comic book aesthetic is hands-down one of my favorite things about the film.
The action is also executed wonderfully. The cinematography and camera movements are extremely creative and make the actions scenes all the more engaging. In my opinion, the third act battle ventures too far into “messy-CGI-armies-smashing-into-each-other” territory, but the action scattered throughout the first three-quarters of the film is fantastic, and at times, breathtaking. James Wan shoots a lot of the hand-to-hand combat in long, uninterrupted, one-take shots that highlight magnificently brilliant choreography.
The performances are all good, but not spectacular. Jason Mamoa (Aquaman), Amber Heard (Mera), Nicole Kidman (Atlanna), Willem Dafoe (Vulko), Patrick Wilson (Orm), and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Black Manta) are all suitable actors, and Mamoa and Heard are very likable in their roles, but there isn’t any depth to any of the performances, mostly due to the shallow script. The writing doesn’t give depth to any of the characters, so while the performances are all good, the actors aren’t given any rich material to work with, making every character feel extremely one-dimensional. To be honest, the Aquaman character was far more interesting in Bruce Timm’s Justice League animated series than he is in this film.
Despite it’s costume designs, breathtaking action, and embrace of the colorful comic book aesthetic, Aquaman’s entire 2-hour-and-22-minute runtime is bogged down by a truly awful script. Some of the dialogue is so cringe-inducing that I almost audibly groaned in the theatre. I think James Wan was going for an intentionally cheesy film, but in my opinion, most of the cheese doesn’t work. The visually goofy elements worked fantastically, but the cheesy writing crashed and burned miserably. The scenes focusing on the Aquaman/Mera romance felt so contrived it was as if they were pulled from a bad 90’s movie.
The film also makes some really weird soundtrack choices. It’s use of Pitbull’s “Ocean to Ocean” (a.k.a. the one where Pitbull raps over “Africa” by Toto) made me drop my jaw in the theatre purely from the oddity of the scene. I don’t doubt James Wan made these decisions deliberately, going for a cheesy fun film, but most of it simply doesn’t work for me; it just comes across as weird.
Aside from the stupendous visuals, most of Aquaman feels tediously unoriginal, from the plot as a whole to smaller, individual scenes. There’s one scene in particular, featured in the trailers, where Mera jumps out of an airplane and the pilot exclaims that she wasn’t wearing a parachute, that made me think, “I’ve seen this dozens of times before. Why are we doing this in 2018?” I’d wager this is another scene that James Wan was intending to be cheesy, but it simply did not land for me.
As I touched on earlier, while most of the action is superbly creative and engaging, the third-act battle is just obnoxious CGI armies and giant CGI monsters. The action reaches a point of diminishing returns where there’s so much going on that I lost all interest. The film eventually brings it back to a smaller scale, with the last fight being a one-on-one between Aquaman and Ocean Master, but by that point, the film had already lost my interest.
On a similar note, the film is a bit too long. I don’t think this is a major issue, but if 15 minutes were trimmed from the film, it would have felt a lot tighter and more precise. There are a couple scenes that simple don’t need to be there, and the film would have been better off cutting them.
Aquaman has a lot of great visual elements including costume design, action, and cinematography, but the film has no roots — no base. The characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is juvenile, the plot is predictable, most of the scenes are clichéd, and the cheese, while intentional, falls completely flat most of the time. Aquaman is shallow and contrived, and is certainly not the great turning point for the DC films I hoped it would be.
Who would have guessed that between Aquaman and Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, the latter would be the better DC movie of 2018?