I’ve made it clear in the past that I’m not a fan of the DCEU. Aside from Wonder Woman, there hasn’t been a good film in this series and it’s been a blatant attempt to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, I do feel that I should give each film a chance, especially now that it looks like DC and Warner Bros are learning from the mistakes they made previously and Aquaman had some potential, especially with James Wan as director. However, it’s clear that the rot of the DCEU has not fully dissipated.
Taking place a year after the events of Justice League, the film follows Arthur Curry, the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry and Atlantean Queen Atlanna, who has been trying to avoid his destiny of becoming the ruler of Atlantis. However, he could no longer ignore it after his half brother Orm makes it his goal to wage war on the surface, so it is up to Arthur, along with Mera, the daughter of another King who is betrothed to Orm, to stop Orm, which involves finding the trident of Atlan, an artefact which gives its wielder control over the seas. Now there are some decent plot elements regarding Arthur having to learn to accept himself and the culture clash that comes from him entering Atlantis for the first time, but as a whole, the structure of the film is a mess. There are way too many plot elements and tones going on, switching from epic war movie, to adventure film, to buddy comedy at the drop of a hat. These shifts in tone wouldn’t be too bad if they were orchestrated properly. As is, the tonal shifts are incredibly abrupt and it just kept pulling me out of the film. It also means that we don’t really get to understand the world of the film. We only spend about 15 minutes in Atlantis with Arthur before we’re pulled out, meaning that we don’t have a POV character to connect us with the world, and it also means that the conflict between Arthur and Orm isn’t properly developed, since they share about 10 minutes of screen time together that isn’t part of an action scene. Ultimately though, the big issue is that I didn’t connect with the characters. They are either too generic, like Orm who has some inclination to being a more complex and intelligent villain, but this goes out the window, or the character development is rushed, like with Arthur and Mera, and for a film that’s 2 and a half hours long, that is an issue.
The performances are hit and miss. Jason Momoa as Aquaman has always been one of my biggest problems with the DCEU, coming across as more annoying than charming, and unfortunately that is still the case here. It’s not as bad as in Justice League since he’s given a character to play be he still just comes across as smug and irritating. Amber Heard as Mera meanwhile is fine, doing good work with the character and showing her exasperation with Arthur well, maybe a bit too well, since I never saw any chemistry between Heard and Momoa, and given the character arcs for the two and how often they are on screen together, that’s an issue. Patrick Wilson as Orm meanwhile starts off as a fairly intimidating villain, but he goes full cartoon character and way too over the top too early, making it so I never found him intimidating. Willem Dafoe is as strong as usual, but he’s given a stock trainer character so Dafoe’s talents really go to waste. Dolph Lundgren is fine as well, doing decent work, but not really given a character to play, aside from in his relationship with Mera (although Lundgren doesn’t quite sell his love for Mera), and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is pretty bad as Black Manta, coming across as so one note, the only noteworthy element to him coming from the excellent recreation of the characters costume. The best performances though are from Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison as Atlanna and Tom Curry. Kidman shows the regal nature of the character excellently and does a great job in the action scenes, along with showing her love for Tom and Arthur and the conflict she has over staying with them or going back to Atlantis, and the scene where she makes the decision is an excellent piece of acting from Kidman. Morrison meanwhile shows a clear paternal love for Arthur along with a kind nature, with his sense of grief and pain over what happened with Atlanna eating away at him, all of this conveyed through subtle facial expressions from Morrison. Those two steal the film and the film never quite lives up to the opening scenes of the two together.
The technical elements of the film are a mixed bag. On the positive side, the production design and CG used to create Atlantis is excellent. For as little time as we spend there, the visuals are striking, I just wish we spent more time to learn how society there works, it feeling like if Black Panther only spent 15 minutes in Wakanda. The action scenes are great for the most part, with the use of long takes and the clear cinematography given a strong visual geography to each scene, along with taking advantage of the water around the characters to create a unique action style. The costume design meanwhile is a mixed bag. Whilst there are some great elements, such as the look of scales being seen in some of them and the over-the-top designs worked in the context of the world, some of them just don’t look good on the actors, mainly this films version of the classic Aquaman costume. The biggest issue for me though was the sound design. I’m not going to beat around the bush, I hated the sound design for the underwater scenes. The reverb effect given to all the voices, whilst I understand why it was included, just doesn’t work, making it hard to understand what the characters are saying, and it feeling more like the scenes in air pockets were to allow the audience to understand the characters rather than for plot reasons.
Overall, Aquaman is a mess. It’s certainly better than most of the other DCEU films and it shows that the DCEU has finally embraced the ridiculous, but ultimately, it feels overstuffed and overlong and the film was probably doomed from the outset from having to be based on the awful version of Aquaman from Justice League. Sure the world of Atlantis is well realised and Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison add some real heart to the film, but on a whole it doesn’t come together.
My Rating: 2/5