Look, I’m just going to be straight with you: either you go with Aquaman or you don’t. James Wan has concocted a seriously weird, gorgeously festooned, seriously fun live action cartoon soap opera. It is quite simply amazing. But if you’re not into it you will likely be unimpressed.
But if you’re the type of person who, when they hear there is an octopus playing drums, shouts out “Take my money!” Or maybe you’re the type of person who was excited for Man of Steel because of Zack Snyder’s attempt to explore the duality of what it means to be a hero and a leader but were dissatisfied with the actual result? Reader, Aquaman is the movie for you.
Aquaman shouldn’t work and the fact that it does is jaw-dropping. Will Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, have thrown everything, along with the kitchen sink, into the script. In fact, after they tossed in the kitchen sink in they began to pillage the neighbor’s house for stuff they could toss in.
Both in tone and in structure Aquaman feels mythological. The story is painted with broad emotional strokes. More than that, Wan and his writers make it all seem so grandiose and magical. The script walks a knife-edge of mashing together every conceivable genre and trope into one cohesive, tonally consistent movie. Wan takes us by the hand and plunges us into a world of lore, traditions, and magic while giving us visuals reminiscent of early 70’s rock album covers. I saw Aquaman in the worst theater and in 3D and I was still blown away by the kinetic energy of his framing and color usage.
Make no mistake, when I say Aquaman is a live-action cartoon, I am in no way meaning it as an insult. It is part of its never-ending charm. Amidst all of this, Wan and his writers have the temerity to actually explore the differences between kings and leaders and how linguistically the two are linked but intellectually they are divided. Heroes must have mercy and lo and behold, like Ant-Man and the Wasp, Aquaman dares to actually carry through with its notion of mercy.
Lately, it feels as if comic book movies have been giving us elaborate excuses to kill the bad guy. Usually, after spending most of its running time professing to be against violence. Partly because we have come to believe that the third act in a movie must end with the bad guy being killed, we recoil at the notion that he will make it out alive. Unless, that is, he is to return later on to vex our hero. But Wan, McGoldrick, and Beall have the temerity and the tenacity to discuss mercy throughout the film and see it through to the end.
It may not seem like much, but for a movie that stars Jason Momoa, who is a flesh and bone embodiment of what we would stereotypically view as masculinity personified, it is astounding. Hollywood loves to set up complicated ideas and have it resolved neatly with a gunfight in the end. Aquaman does the former but then has the audacity to not do the latter.
Momoa’s Arthur/Aquaman is a raving supernova of charisma and talent. Like Paul Newman, he has a laid back easy smirk about him that makes us love him instantly. Unafraid of looking silly, he leans hard into Arthur’s fear and anxieties. Choosing to boast and charge headlong when he is unsure of how to act. Unlike most heroes, when Arthur makes a mistake it actually has consequences.
If there is one complaint I have is that Wan and his writers have utilized one trope that needs to be laid to rest. The trope of the more mature, more enlightened, more equipped woman having to beg, prod, and cajole the male hero into actually helping out or giving a damn. Another example of the emotional labor of women is that they may be fully equipped, emotionally, physically, and intelligently to be the hero they must step aside because…reasons.
If a woman had even been included in the script writing process, who knows what would have happened. Nevertheless, Heard is pitch perfect as Mera. A Princess, the daughter of King Nerseus (Dolph Lundgren), she is a diplomat who understands the anger in both Orm (Patrick Wilson) and Arthur.
Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed ashore one dark and stormy night. She was discovered by a lighthouse keeper named Thomas (Temuera Morrison). The two fall in love and have a child, Arthur. Atlanna fled Atlantis because she was betrothed to a man she did not believe was good. Eventually, they find her and to save Arthur and Thomas, she returns to Atlantis.
She had another son, Orm. For her love of the “land dweller” and for siring a “mongrel,” she is sacrificed. Some of you might be cringing at another familiar trope known as “fridging.” Scriptwriters have a too-common habit in which they kill off women to further a man’s emotional arc. The death is used as a way to explore the man’s psyche, ignoring the actual woman herself. Instead, they relegate her corpse to being a cipher for the man.
McGoldrick, Beall, and Wan flip this on its head. Furthermore, they use this twist to feed into their theme of mercy. Orm and Arthur each blame the other for Atlanna’s death, Arthur just so happens to also blame himself.
While the trope about the overqualified woman leading the uncaring, overpowered male by the hand is irritating, Aquaman does its best to mitigate it. Not to mention Wan and company use the opportunity to address “racial purity.” It is a topic of much debate within the film’s context and is partly why Arthur is so reluctant to even visit Atlantis.
It’s racism but made easily digestible for the audience. This way people who do not call themselves white supremacists will not be so eager to raise a ruckus about how SJWs are poisoning the art. But their absence will more than likely be filled by the people who do call themselves white supremacists and who complain about how SJWs are poisoning the art.
Even the action scenes are fun. It sounds weird to say because I love movies and part of that is loving action movies that contain action scenes. But I can say with some authority that there scenes with action in them and there are action scenes. It may be obvious but I feel compelled to mention that scenes are about action, either physical or emotional. In it’s in the word “movies”: things must move.
The problem with Marvel’s “studio as the auteur” is that they compartmentalize the filmmaking. Directors handle the acting and the filming while the studio does the effects and the action photography. While that may seem inconsequential, watch a fight scene in Aquaman. In particular, the fight that takes place on an island in Italy between Arthur, Mera, royal guards, and a hired gun. Notice how the scenes move and how Wan and his editor Kirk Morri cut from one fight to the other.
In, other superhero movies the action feels slick but somehow disconnected from the plot. Wan,Morri, and the cinematographer Don Burgess work together to make the action and the plot one and the same. Both Mera and Arthur each have their own fight, each one having something to prove but not to each other.
Mera must fight the guards sent by her father to bring her home but secretly ordered by Orm to murder her. Meanwhile, Arthur must deal with an arch nemesis of his own making: Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Yet the way Wan and his team choreograph and film the fights, the movement from one compliment the other. If Mera is running or chasing after the guards in the background, then Arthur will be planted in the foreground fighting Manta hand to hand. Or it may be that they are both running just in opposite fields of the frame.
I quite liked how Wan and his team allowed Mera’s fight and Arthur’s to exist separately without one having to rescue the others. They cleverly visualize that these are two competent and equal heroes each capable of taking care of themselves. I may be biased because this fight scene also contains a favorite gag of mine.
It’s an old gag but one that never fails to make me giggle whenever I see it. As Arthur fights Manta, crashing through walls from one cottage to the next, they land in an old lady’s living room. Sitting on the couch she waves a feather duster at the debris while Arthur shrugs apologetically. Only to proceed to fight Manta, in her living room, before exiting out her other wall, Manta in tow.
Burgess’ camera is a large part of why Aquaman feels so fresh and exciting. Normally, CGI heavy productions have limited movement because, as stated, neither the twain shall meet. Burgess breathes life into the CGI scenes such as the ones underwater in or around Atlantis.
The movie somehow pokes fun at itself while constantly taking itself seriously. Wry humor bubbles beneath the surface of every frame. Wan dares you to laugh as Arthur trains with Nudis (Willem Dafoe) in the ways of Atlantean combat. But then they also frame both in a single wide shot of their own. They cut back and forth as Nudis tells Arthur the fate of his mother. Wan and his team end the scene with a single shot of Arthur. His emotions boil to the surface as the music swells to match the pitch.
Burgess, Morri, and Wan have made a breathtaking epic filled to the hilt with story and vibrant emotions. Watching Aquaman, you can see Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, Legend, Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and countless others. It is a pantheon of images which are familiar but are recontextualized with a brown-skinned hero.
Aquaman is a mythic operatic melodrama with derring-do, love, and adventures under the high seas. We’ve already been asked to believe a man could fly. But now Wan is asking us to believe a man can swim. I’m here to tell you he can and he does.