About midway through Aquaman, the surprisingly self-aware Jason Momoa basically looks into the camera and utters the most obvious line of his career: “I am a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” It was a moment of clarity for the DC Universe, one that has desperately needed it. For all the self seriousness that existed in Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League, the DC film universe stumbled through the darkness. Sadly, this was more than metaphorical, as the drab and dark color palettes of the Zach Snyder led franchise made many scenes too dark to see. Luckily, an infusion of visions from non-bro filmmakers Patti Jenkins, and now James Wan, may have pushed the universe in the right direction.
The plot of Aquaman is not super innovative, but it is effective and classic storytelling. Arthur Curry (Momoa) is a hero born between the surface world of his father (Temuera Morrison) and his mother (Nicole Kidman). Raised without a mother, Arthur has become bitter and hostile towards the people of Atlantis, who left him without a parent. However, when his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) declares war the surface world, Arthur must step in and save the day. With the help of Orm’s future wife Mera (Amber Heard) and Arthur’s trainer Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Arthur must find the Lost Trident of Atlan.
The story is grandiose and massive in scale, easily eclipsing any of the prior DC Films in that front. While Wonder Woman reveled in the intimacy of Themyscira, Aquaman and director James Wan paints the largest picture possible. the sprawling landscapes of the undersea world are impeccable created, even when the CGI goes too far. This film proves that Wan should continue making big budget blockbusters along these lines, because his eye for creating spectacle might be equal to some of the greatest directors ever. It gets weird as we dive deeper and deeper into the ocean, which certainly differentiates the world of Aquaman from the rest of the established universe. Wan especially excels when given the opportunity to choreograph fight sequences, which continually push the boundaries of the characters’ powers in the universe.
As far as the acting goes, Wan puts his cast into the best positions to succeed. He lets Momoa do what Momoa does best, be charming and shirtless for most of the film. His bro attitude works in the context of the film, even when other characters are clearly more qualified to do anything. Heard gets the most to do in the film, clearly proving herself superior to Momoa in nearly every way other than strength. Their chemistry surprisingly works, and it really does wonders to make the story click into place.
Kidman really stands out among the cast despite minimal screen time. She’s committed to the role, and like a true professional, she doesn’t bat an eyelash at the insanity. She brings a real spirit into the film like Robin Wright before her, and Kidman’s presence hangs over the entire film. Meanwhile, Wilson gets to be silly evil. It’s not a huge upgrade over the role he was meant to play in Ant-Man, but he’s certainly more intimidating than that character ever became. He’s a puppet master, especially when it comes to how the film uses Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the Black Manta. Frankly that character gets henchmen duty, and there’s little reason to care about him. Its not Abdul-Manteen’s fault, but instead because the character is so underwritten.
That is what holds back Aquaman the most, and frankly the writing becomes an issues across several sequences of the film. Scene after scene becomes an expository dump, most of which is tough to understand. The film uses an interesting sound edit on voices, especially when underwater. It was a great idea in theory, but literally makes much what the character’s say incomprehensible. This issue cuts down the momentum, and makes a lot of the lore meaningless if you can’t understand it. For the film that needs to heavily explain the world, this is really problematic. In essence, this is our first Aquaman film, so every piece of dialogue regarding Atlantis and it’s history is necessary for us to understand the context of the events to come.
Further adding to the issues with exposition and literal sound quality of the dialogue comes the cringe worthy dialogue. Time and time again, the actual words the cast is forced to say is jaw droppingly dumb. It really pulls down the movie, and legit drops half a star from my ranking of the film. Much of the character dialogue would feel at home in the Batman & Robin film, even as the characters do their best to transcend the screenplay. It’s the action and spectacle from Wan that saves the movie from falling apart, and makes Aquaman quality entertainment for the big screen.
While Aquaman is not a game changer for the entire DC Universe, it shows progress. Undeniably a step in the right direction, James Wan proves once again that he should be a man in demand. His visual flare for the fantastic makes him an excellent pick-up for the DC Universe. Hampered by some mediocre performers, Wan gets the most he can out of his cast. Ultimately, Wan is the reason the movie works, and it’s a fun romp for the holiday season.