It was kind of down to the wire, but here it is, folks. Aquaman
is the single goofiest movie of 2018. And no, I am not forgetting the 112 minutes of Venom
we got back in October. Director James Wan (The Conjuring
films) has given us many ludicrous sights to behold, such as Willem Dafoe riding a seahorse, an army of sharks that roar, a giant octopus who plays the bongos, and Dolph Lundgren trying to keep a straight face with a bright red beard and flowing locks. With just a tiny nudge, the movie could have veered into the realm of parody, or perhaps become a live action SpongeBob Squarepants
That may also explain why the movie suffers from such an identity crisis. It's impossible to take seriously, and a lot of the time, the movie seems to be in on the joke. But at others, it asks us to get involved in the plight of the underwater Atlantians, and whether they should go to war with the surface dwellers up on land. The only one who can save both the dry land and the underwater realm is Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa as kind of a male fashion model with the vocabulary and mindset of a 12-year-old. The hero (whose real name is Arthur) was born when a lighthouse keeper fell in love with the exiled Queen of the sea kingdom, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, putting on a game face, considering some of the dialogue she's forced to deliver here). He has grown up to possess remarkable strength, superior swimming ability, and the ability to communicate with underwater life. Useful when you want to tell a squid what to do, but I don't see it coming in handy much.
The first time we see Arthur, he saves a sub full of Russian sailors from some evil pirates. He climbs on board, throws his hair back in slow motion, then immediately starts tossing bad guys all over the room and slamming them into walls. The fighting here looks sped up and aided with a lot of CG, which kind of kills the excitement of the fight, because we're not actually watching Momoa or his stunt double. This is apparently how Arthur makes his living. He waits for some kind of water-related crime to happen, and then he springs into action like a badass. The rest of the time he spends with his father at the local bar, downing beers. It's a living, I guess. After one of his drinking binges with dear ol' dad, the Atlantian Princess Mera (Amber Heard, wearing a bright flame red wig that makes her look kind of like Ronald McDonald's dream girl) comes up to land to tell Arthur that things are bad down below, and he must come to the undersea kingdom to claim his rightful throne as the king.
The plot (or at least the closest thing this movie gets to a plot) centers on Arthur's brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson) trying to strong-arm the other undersea kingdoms into joining him in a battle against the humans who live up on land. His vast army includes high tech sea vessels that look like something out of a 1950s Sci-Fi novel cover, which are a lot of fun to look at, and soldiers who ride on the back of seahorses, which is an intriguing image that the movie sadly does not exploit or explore as much as it should. The only way to stop Orm's war plans is to find an ancient trident that once belonged to an old king of Atlantis, and is now hidden away somewhere. Arthur and Mera venture forth, encountering a lot of dangers, like the evil pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who gets his hands on Atlantian technology, and builds a battle suit for himself to combat Aquaman. The movie sets Manta up to be a major villain, then pretty much forgets about him after one major battle. We'll see more of him in the sequel.
So yes, Aquaman
is extremely goofy, and I wanted to embrace it, but I couldn't. I just didn't find it all that fun, despite the silliness. A lot of the problems stem from Aquaman/Arthur himself. Sure, he's fast with a quip, as is required of all superheroes these days, but he doesn't have any personality to back it up. We don't know what he thinks, what he feels, and he often comes across as a blank slate who just so happens to have good hair, a great body, and likes to punch stuff. He also doesn't seem to have much on his mind, and usually refers to everything in a pre-adolescent way, describing things as "badass" or "awesome". Of all the superheroes you could be stuck on a long bus ride with, you would not want to be seated next to Aquaman. I imagine the smell he would give off would probably be enough to repel, but that's a completely different matter. Momoa is obviously trying to give this guy a fun personality, but he can only do so much with this material.
The same could be said for everybody else. They're all making a valiant effort here, but the exposition-heavy script lets them down. You have old pros like Kidman and Dafoe trying to act like this nonsense is serious business, and then you have Amber Heard trying to act like she serves a purpose, when she doesn't even get to create any real chemistry with Momoa, despite the movie hinting that a romance is blooming between the two during their adventure. There's just not much to get excited about here, even with the non-stop special effects and the frantic action scenes that often go on too long. For all of its underwater visuals and occasionally wonderfully weird ideas, I was just never wowed by anything that happened. This movie doesn't have the confidence to truly take flight as a spectacle, or as a self-aware comedy. It felt to me like the movie was holding itself back.
This is not a terrible superhero film, but it falls far short of the best recent effort coming out of Marvel Studios, or the just-released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
. Those movies know how to make us care about what's going on, and the people inhabiting the story. With Aquaman
, the strongest reaction I ever got was wanting to see more of the giant octopus that plays the bongos. I've heard of stranger ideas for a spin-off movie.