Movie Review: Aquaman
PG-13 | 2h 23min
Director: James Wan
Stars: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe
by Jason Koenigsberg
The thought of a movie about the C-list superhero Aquaman always makes me think of the joke from HBO’s Entourage about ten years ago when the comic book movie craze was just becoming a big deal and one of the characters was going to star in the Aquaman movie. It sounded absurd and at the time seemed like a fantasy, but in 2018, an Aquaman movie is very much a reality. This is his third appearance in a film and his first time being front and center in his own movie. The result is one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the year. Aquaman is actually really good, and not just as a guilty pleasure, or eye candy. Director James Wan and his team have put together a very loving and respectable superhero film that stands well on its own.
The first shot is a green shudder banging against a white exterior of a house in the rain. The next shot reveals it is a lighthouse and Nicole Kidman has washed up on shore. She is one of the many actors that makes Aquaman a winner. To appreciate Aquaman one must give the large and eclectic cast a lot of credit for taking their roles with just the right amount of seriousness and vigor that they require. For starters, finally Jason Momoa has a successful star vehicle. After a forgettable Conan the Barbarian remake and popping up in several uninspired DC team-up films, the Game of Thrones alum now has the feature film to make him the movie star that producers have been trying to make for most of the decade. He plays Arthur Curry/Aquaman with the right amount of confidence and swagger. Momoa said that he looked at Aquaman as a heavy metal rock star and listened to Tool songs to pump him up to get into character. Well, his method worked. I can picture his Aquaman rocking out to metal before he commandeers a submarine.
The rest of the cast is uniformly top notch. Warner Bros. has assembled a crew of comic book movie alumni together for an interesting take on one of DC’s most underrated and overlooked heroes. Twenty-three years ago Nicole Kidman was Bruce Wayne’s love interest in Batman Forever (1995). Now she returns to the DC universe as Aquaman’s mom, and she still looks great and delivers a nuanced performance that serves as the heart and motivation for our hero. Willem Dafoe was Peter Parker’s enemy back in the original Spider-Man (2002) and now he is Aquaman’s mentor as a nautical Mr. Miyagi. Patrick Wilson was Night Owl in Watchmen (2009) and now he is Aquaman’s villainous half-brother. Each actor had experience making comic book films and they used that to hone their acting here and kudos should be given to them for delivering such respectable performances in front of such fantastical backdrops and with dialogue that could have been laughable if spoken by lesser talents.
The two other performances that deserve to be recognized are Amber Heard as Arthur/Aquaman’s love interest who was so good she took the attention off her ridiculously bright red hair, meant to serve as a blatant homage to Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). She is really good and fits right in with the veteran actors she shares the screen with. The other performance to savor is Dolph Lundgren who may be having the best two months of his career with Creed II released on Thanksgiving and now Aquaman right before Christmas. When was the last time Lundgren starred in two major theatrical releases in the same year, let alone a month apart? 1980—NEVER! That’s when! Plus he does a good job here as Amber Heard’s father, reluctant and conflicted to follow Patrick Wilson’s antagonists plan to attack the surface world.
Aquaman is far from flawless. It contains a lot of silly, bloodless CGI action and violence which is beyond mind-numbing at this point in the world of PG-13 comic book movie adaptations. Another cliche Aquaman is guilty of is faceless henchman bad guys being horrible shots. The ones here are more inept than Strom Troopers in a Star Wars film. The movie also has a painfully obvious environmental message that human beings on the surface are poisoning and destroying the seas with ocean dumping, overfishing, and pollution. Some really bad attempts at humor and political commentary, Atlantis has a customs and border patrol, they took the time to mention it and other than firing some fancy FX guns they did not do anything creative with it, although dumping on Trump has become almost as tiresome in movies as it has on Saturday Night Live. There are scenes where Aquaman takes itself too seriously, but for the most part, James Wan and the actors found the right tone to set the world in. It is more grounded that Marvel’s fantasy world, but much more lighthearted than Zack Snyder’s DC films.
Another problem I had was Aquaman’s strength and abilities. He seems impervious to gunshots and is pretty much invincible in every way. After seeing this movie I think Aquaman could beat Superman in a fight without any Kryptonite. Also interesting, not really a problem per se is Aquaman’s strange pro-alcohol message. Twice this film has scenes that not only celebrate drinking but send the message that alcohol is so good it saves our heroes lives in the moment. Once again, not really a problem unless you are in recovery. Just an interesting point to contemplate.
Aquaman has strong themes about divorce and the child blaming himself for his parent’s separation. Those scenes work better than the pro-environmentalist scenes Al Gore could have scribbled in as notes on the script to include. Mostly Aquaman works because it is so visually intriguing. The filmmakers use white to symbolize evil to represent Arthur/Aquaman’s vile half-brother, and a pirate takes the white armor and weapons given to him and paints them black to represent his conventional image of evil. This makes for a more sophisticated visual repertoire than most big-budget comic book movies. Aquaman also trots around the globe. He is not just underwater or on the same type of vegetation on his surface scenes. The movie goes from New England to Sicily to the Sahara just to name a few and each set piece has a unique style that makes it seem fresh and new. Between the astonishing images onscreen, constantly changing set pieces, and the terrific performances across the board, Aquaman is an easy film to recommend.