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It was standard.
Aquaman is the first DC movie since the abysmal catastrophe known as Justice League. Test screenings and trailers were well received, but I was still skeptical. DC has been on a downward spiral of epic proportions. Aquaman was a chance for redemption. By all accounts it’s been a success. It’s already outdone Justice League financially and critically. Audiences seem to love it. All is well. Right? My answer would be…”sure." It wasn’t unbearable.
To sum up Aquaman, I would say DC has made a perfectly adequate Marvel movie. It wasn’t too memorable or groundbreaking. A lot of the story beats were standard clichés we’ve seen from dozens of superhero films. The hero has a dead/lost parent, they have to find an artifact that will turn the tide of the fight, and a bunch of other clichés. Unfortunately for Aquaman, I think it’s fallen into the trap of not quite sticking out. In a post-Thor world, you can’t have a Bifrost-esque bridge, a buff man seeking a weapon to prove his worthiness, and the flowing long hair. It was a little too much like Thor for my liking.
Aquaman himself didn’t impress me much. The “hero gaining confidence and becoming a better person” arc is something we’ve seen from Thor, Iron Man, etc. Jason Momoa is hot, don’t get me wrong. I liked looking at him, but he was the least interesting character in the film. His jokes didn’t quite land, and I felt like he was flat the whole time. For example, when he fights his half-brother Orm, his trident gets broken. It’s his mother’s trident, and he obviously loves it as his only connection to her. I felt nothing when he was holding the broken pieces. I didn’t feel the emotion from it. I wasn’t a fan of how they completely skipped his back story. He went from an infant to being able to communicate with sharks at the aquarium. Even a 30 second clip of him learning he can communicate with fish by the dock, or even a pet fish, would’ve been helpful. It felt like he already knew he could do this as a child. I wanted to see him discover it more.
Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman’s characters were very compelling. I believed them as driven and strong in their own rights, especially Heard’s Mera. I expected almost nothing, and instead I found her to be driving him every step of the way. She should’ve been the queen, in opinion. To get to Nicole Kidman, I think she was my favorite, even though she had only a few moments of screen time. I thought the opening scene was great. The relationship between Atlanna and Tom was believable to me. I was totally into the short montage of them becoming friends and falling in love. At the end, when they were reunited, I was genuinely happy about it. The only thing that ruined it was that stupid narration at the beginning. It would be better if we’d gotten no dialogue and had the whole thing play out visually. You could see what was happening between the pair perfectly. The narration was just pointless. It felt like they thought the audience wasn’t smart enough to understand what was happening. I really couldn’t come up with a reason why it should’ve been there. That goes double for the ending. Aquaman narrates again that he is the bridge between land and sea, the king, etc. It felt like a lazy closing paragraph at the end of a college essay. It should’ve been taken out. Show don’t tell, they always say. Kidman still managed to sell though. She was fierce as well as vulnerable. The one-take fight scene she had in the beginning was fantastic. It showed her character go from sweet mother to warrior queen in a heartbeat. I loved her.
Speaking of the impressive one-take filming technique, there were some very impressive fight scenes and film techniques that stood out to me. All the fights were entertaining, except the final mess of CGI and random armies doing random things. The transition between young Arthur and Vulko swimming and adult Arthur and Mera swimming was well done. It was seamless and both stories matched with each other. The CGI was also inventive. They went big for Atlantis and the scene where Aquaman gets his trident. I give them credit for the multiple locations to keep it interesting. There were small places where the CGI looked a little too fake and saturated, like the ones at the lighthouse dock. The costume design was also pretty great. The Atlantean soldiers looked intimidating. Mera and Atlanna looked great in whatever they wore. Another detail to be noted is the soundtrack. I really enjoyed it. The guitar riffs worked with his scenes. The emotional theme for Atlanna was my favorite. It made me feel for her struggles. It was a great track for when Arthur reunited with her. I think in that one moment, Momoa shines the most for me. The smile and laugh he does when they hug was amazing. The only part of the soundtrack I didn’t like was whenever there was a humor break. They would add this weird Hallmark-esque goofy music that didn’t fit with the production quality of the rest of it.
While there were lots of things I ended up enjoying in Aquaman, there were details and choices, small and large, that I couldn’t get past. I think I have to mention the state of the DCEU didn’t help this movie. It felt like there was a weird vibe of not wanting to mention Justice League while also having to mention it to explain Aquaman and Mera already knowing each other. I also found it strange that everyone knew Aquaman in this movie. There was no indication in the previous movie that everyone knew him after the Steppenwolf ordeal. He was shown going back to the sea, and that was it. Somehow, the sailors he rescued knew who he was and were excited to see him. People took photos with him, and the news was discussing him. I was just confused. It seemed like it wanted to be a reboot of sorts while also having some backstory. It’s unfortunate that the franchise has made Aquaman suffer. Another franchise related issue is one that Marvel struggles with as well. The world is in danger. Why don’t they call Superman? Why not Wonder Woman? It’s more egregious in Marvel because those heroes are connected already. I’d believe that Aquaman doesn’t have the other heroes on his cell phone. However, with monumental things going on all over the world, like the Italy fight and the giant wave that almost kills Arthur’s dad, it’s hard to believe Superman wouldn’t be present at all.
Regarding problems more relevant to the story itself, the entire thing with Black Manta seemed entirely useless. It seemed like it was there to pad the runtime and introduce a new main villain for a future movie. He was only there for a cool fight in Italy. At first I thought he would be the side villain to help Aquaman grow; at the beginning, Aquaman didn’t save his father when he clearly could’ve. At the end, Arthur could’ve saved Manta and not left him for dead as he heartlessly did before. Instead, he beats him and throws him in the ocean for a sequel. He did nothing for the movie. It was a letdown, considering all the screen time he had at the start. For example, he meets Atlantean soldiers in the desert, they give him a weapon to chase after Aquaman. It’s powered by water…and they’re in the desert. But that doesn’t matter, because then Manta modifies the Atlantean tech, and is able to catch up to them in Italy. Then why did he meet them in the desert? Why would they give him a water powered gun in the desert? Why did he have to spray paint his gear black? Is his aesthetic that important? It just rose so many questions for me. His abrupt removal from the movie was screaming “sequel." It wasn’t a satisfying arc or story for Manta at all.
The other unfortunate thing about Manta is that it took away from any development of Orm. Orm wasn’t exactly revolutionary as a villain, as most comic villains are nowadays. He had Loki levels of potential though. I liked the reveal of his reasons for hating Arthur. Because Atlanna ran away and had Arthur, she was sentenced to death. Orm blames Arthur, even though it isn’t his fault. The brother rivalry had so much potential. Instead he is reduced to a basic villain wanting to conquer the world. The ending attempted to keep him a bit interesting by sparing his life and reconciling with their mother. A bit of the animosity Orm holds toward Aquaman disappears as he is taken to imprisonment. The choice to let him live was well chosen. There is still hope that Orm might join Arthur at some point, or come back as a villain again, allowing him to be fleshed out more. I’d like to see more of him. Patrick Wilson is a pretty great actor with a good resume. He can do a lot more in this role.
Overall, it was middle of the road for me. I would get into it, but then suddenly something stupid and cliché would happen that I didn’t believe. Arthur and Mera’s relationship wasn’t believable to me. It was basic and just happened because the script said so. The Pitbull remix of "Africa" is stupid. There, I said it. I didn’t walk away from this movie with any memorable impression whatsoever. It’s much better than almost every other DC movie, which is already a huge improvement. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to see them get more into the characters. Aquaman has enormous potential, and hopefully that can keep the momentum going for the DCEU as a whole.
Author's Note: As a Bostonian, I have to say that it is not the Boston Aquarium in the movie. We have the New England Aquarium, and they don't have sharks like that.