A movie true to its environmentalist theme, in that it recycle all of its parts from better movies.
[This review contains spoilers.]
The DC Extended Universe has had its struggles. In its effort to keep up with Marvel, they rushed into Justice League after four movies. They were profitable, but only one of them managed to be good. Wonder Woman presented a glimmer of hope for the cinematic universe, a way to right the ship. The tone was lighter, and it was far more engaging than the haphazard mess of Batman v. Superman. It also felt more like a Marvel superhero movie. Thus began DC’s attempt to imitate Marvel. Justice League is good if one were to use a time machine and release it before The Avengers came out. On all fronts, it is inferior to what has already been made. Nothing about it is fresh, which was an issue in Age of Ultron as well, though to a lesser degree. By that count, that makes five bad DCEU movies, and one good one. How does Aquaman compare? Within its first fifteen minutes, it becomes clear that Aquaman sits right alongside the likes of Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad at the bottom of the sea of superhero films.
Moving beyond that forced line, Aquaman is an artificial film. This isn’t a jab at the visual effects, but rather the storytelling. It is downright lousy. The script by David Leslie Jonhson-McGoldrick and Will Beall is painfully predictable. If you watch movies on even a semi-regular basis, you’ll be able to call nearly every plant and payoff. Granted, superhero films usually rely on a tried and true formula. What helps movies like Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok stand out are the strengths beyond the familiar beats. Characters matter, and a good hero matters just as much as a good villain. Killmonger was one of the best villains in the entire MCU thanks to the time devoted to exploring his motivation. In Aquaman, there are two villains: Black Manta and Orm. The movie quickly establishes Black Manta’s motivation, but it’s hard to tell exactly what the script was intending to do with him. After meeting with Orm’s men and receiving compensation for hijacking a submarine, the movie forgets about him for about forty-five minutes. Then, there’s an attempt to humanize him with a montage of him designing his signature outfit. Once he fights Aquaman, he’s forgotten once again and relegated to a mid-credits scene, which shows him still thirsting for revenge against Aquaman. His arc is half-baked and feels like a long setup for a sequel. There’s practically no consequence in removing him altogether from the movie, and it’s a decision they should’ve made. The real focus is on Orm, a one-dimensional, screaming tyrant played by Patrick Wilson. He fits the mold established by all the other DCEU of a completely generic villain. Wilson attempts to be intense and evil, but it’s unconvincing and unintentionally funny thanks to the bad dialogue.
The heroes don’t fare much better than the villains, unfortunately. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is, frankly, boring. Justice League set him up as a loud, wild, and energetic guy. He’s like Thor. Here, however, Aquaman is quieter and less likable. He has a few one-liners here and there, but he isn’t nearly as fun as he was before. Mera is Aquaman’s love interest, and, aside from a couple “badass moments”, that’s all she is. The moments where she does cool stuff feel like they were tacked on in an effort to make her more than just good-looking. Her chemistry with Momoa is forced to the point of eliciting eye rolls every time they have an intimate moment. The rest of the cast is completely forgettable. This is also one of an alarmingly high number of movies that wastes the talents of Djimon Hounsou. Can someone give him a major role again, please?
On a technical level, Aquaman isn’t very good. The cinematography is far too flashy. Long takes are great and they can make an action sequence incredibly intense, but the problem is that every single one of them looks awful. The visual effects are not good, so as the camera whips this way and that, your attention is drawn towards how completely artificial it all is. Even with better CGI, the camera movements are distracting and do nothing in telling the story any better. The CGI is also a problem in scenes where nothing is going on. It’s a problem that has popped up in other movies, but is more noticeable here because there’s nothing good to cling onto. Scenes that take place on the dock near the lighthouse look laughably fake. Another scene in which Aquaman and Mera are on a boat has a similar lighting setup, with the “sun” setting behind the characters as they talk, and it looks terrible. Would it have been too much trouble to actually go out and shoot these things on location? And, if I’m wrong and they did film it on location, why did they make it look so fake?
The music is also a problem, but not to the same extent. Music underpins nearly every scene in the entire movie. It’s hard to recall a moment when there was silence in its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Often times, it feels like it is used to compensate for the script’s lack of emotional weight. The music tells you as a viewer should feel, even if you never actually feel those things. However, it is important to give credit where it’s due. There are a couple themes that sound good. One where Mera and Aquaman are traveling through Atlantis combines traditional symphonic sound with synths, and it is pretty cool. Orm and Black Manta both have leitmotifs that are comically sinister. Nearly every time Orm is onscreen, there’s a “dun-dun-dun” in the off chance you forget he’s supposed to be the villain. If the movie leaned more into this over-the-top style and was written in a similar way, it could’ve been a great time.
As it is, though, Aquaman is a drag. It’s all been done before, and better. This movie also proves that a tonal shift for the DCEU is not necessarily the solution. The problem is the writing itself. All of it feels like an inferior clone of Marvel. At this point, there’s nothing to differentiate DC’s tone from Marvel’s, and it may be too late to reverse course. The dark tone has been cast to the bottom of the ocean, and DC has chosen to cling onto levity in the hopes that they’ll stay afloat in the sea of superhero films. What they really need is a life vest made of stronger writing. Aaaand this metaphor is really getting away from me so I’m going to stop now before I soil my reputation forever as a reviewer.
DC, get better writers.