REVIEW: Aquaman – DC Is Better Down Where It’s Wetter

Aquaman, the King of Atlantis, gets a movie with the scope and magnitude fitting for the King of Atlantis, in a movie that can best be described as an underwater science fantasy fairy tale that opens the Worlds of DC to entirely new possibilities.

There is an actual Aquaman movie coming out in theaters? This is a real surreal moment. Despite actually being a prominent role in the pages of DC comics for years, his pop culture persona is that of a joke thanks in part to the Superfriends. That persona has carried over into multiple forms of media for years, so much so that the concept of an Aquaman movie was a major running joke on the HBO show Entourage, which made a series-long joke out of the mere concept that Aquaman would get his own movie…yet in 2018 here we are with a major tentpole Aquaman movie directed by 21st-century horror icon James Wan, famous for Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, and Furious 7.

Aquaman now is the sixth installment is the fan-dubbed DC Extended Universe aka DCEU, or as the studio wants to call it, Worlds of DC (will that name ever hold?). Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the reaction to the DCEU has been far more mixed on the negative side, with the sole standout that everyone agrees as good/great being Wonder Woman. After the troubled production and muted reaction to Justice League, all eyes are on Aquaman to see what the state of the franchise is in. Can it pull itself out of the negative bubble it has found itself in? Will this course correction work and steer the ship back on course? Will it, for lack of a better term, sink or swim? That has got to be a record for most water puns in a row, right?

Well, I am happy to report that Aquaman works. In fact, it really works. Saying it is one of the better DCEU films may not sound like a glowing endorsement, but if this is a sign of where the franchise is going then all seems to be well. It is so far removed from the tone of previous DC films. The key reason it works: it is fun. Now, normally that seems like a blanket statement you could throw at any movie and doesn’t really have any actual meaning. But in this context, Aquaman is a movie that is brave enough to be weird. It takes the audience on a ride, through an underwater world that feels very much the live action film manifesto of Sebastian the crab pitching to Ariel why being under the sea is so awesome in The Little Mermaid. None of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice self-important serious bleakness is to be found here. We are far from the shallows now. This is a silly movie, in the best way possible. This is the type of movie that features an old-timey romance of a mer-person queen and a lighthouse fisherman, an octopus playing the drums in a gladiatorial arena, and ending with a war between merpeople and crab people with a giant underwater Kaiju voiced by Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. This movie has, to quote Dr. Evil, “sharks with fricken laser beams attached to their heads!” If that doesn’t pique your interest, what will?

Much like horror-turned-superhero director Sam Raimi did with Spider-Man, James Wan has a big ambitious mythic vision for Aquaman and plays it entirely sincere. Wan presents Aquaman and his mythology of underwater civilizations, merpeople, giant seahorses, speaking to sea life, villains with crazy get up and names, and presents them 100% straight. He trusts that the material, which was strong enough to hook comic readers, will also grab the attention of a mainstream audience. It presents it as cool and silly as it sounds, and those two play off each other in a symbiotic circle. The sillier it gets, the more metal it becomes. The cooler something gets, the more ludicrous and over the top it is. Very much like the film’s star Jason Momoa, who is himself a big bulky man who seems like he is going to be the overly serious badass, but is secretly a sweetheart teddy bear of a man, the film is a contradiction that continues to complement.

Aquaman is very much an adaptation of the Geoff Jones 52 Aquaman stories, a James Wan film, and its very own unique creation. It draws heavily from many different sources to create something new. Imagine taking Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, Excalibur, Waterworld, Pirates of the Caribbean, Little Mermaid, Romancing the Stone, The Mummy – and that still doesn’t quite scratch the surface of what exactly the film is.

Set a year after the events of Justice League, Aquaman picks up with Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) having become a hero the public knows, going about his day saving people at sea. The surface world is attacked by his half-brother King Orm aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), due to the surface world’s continued pollution of the oceans. Arthur is recruited by Princess Mera (Amber Heard) and Atlantian scientist Vulko (William Dafoe) to find the lost trident of the first king of Atlantis, to unite the seven kingdoms of Atlantis and stop Orm from declaring war on the surface. Along Arthur’s journey across the globe he must deal with his past, embrace his nature as a child of two worlds, and become the true king of Atlantis and worthy of the title: Aquaman.

Aquaman feels very much like the movie that 2011’s Green Lantern was too ashamed to be. It is the type of film that many fans have wanted DC to make for a long time, in the sense that it is the most “DC Comics” film. Despite being the point in which a great deal of 20th and 21st-century pop art and storytelling has sprung from, no one has quite tried to capture the unique visual look and storytelling structure of the DC comics universe. The Marvel Universe, despite its flights of fancy, is supposed to reflect the real world of the reader. The heroes live in real cities and current events happen as is. The characters are more grounded in a science-based approach. The DC Universe is an alternate world that is stylized and heightened. It features more magical concepts like Amazons and Atlantians, giving them an old-world feel like events have been happening long before the current stories. A rich detailed lore behind each character. The brand name Worlds of DC makes sense, because the universe is filled with different out-there concepts and worlds. Metropolis, Gotham City, Oa, Krypton, Themyscira, Apokalypse, and even Atlantis are very unique mini-worlds that make up a greater universe. The characters that inhabit it are more mythic, born out of their 30’s/40’s Golden Age roots, or 50’s retro-futurism and pulpy science fiction. They feature origin stories that span the character’s whole life, with key moments in their childhood defining the legends they grow into being.

While the original 1978 Superman: The Movie and 2017’s Wonder Woman found the perfect balance between comic book fantasy and previously established film conventions, 1989’s Batman was an art deco piece inspired by the mind of Tim Burton, and The Dark Knight trilogy was a stripped down reimagining of the Batman universe. Now Aquaman is a film that draws heavily from the pages of DC Comics to bring that experience to the big screen. It is big on the verge of bombastic, with whole new worlds designed in the most insane visual splendor, and adapts the hero’s journey to give it a mythic angle.

Many superhero movies have dabbled into other genres, and Aquaman dives deep into being a fantasy film (hence the December release dates where fantastical films tend to thrive). It is weird considering we’ve had three Thor films, each one drawing from their own unique subset of fantasy (Shakespearian/Game of Thrones/Space Opera), yet Aquaman’s fantasy is more in the sense of legends and fairy tales. Arthur is the product of a love that never should have happened, two people from different worlds that found love in a very fairy tale way that are tragically torn apart. Wan, and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, are very much drawing from the “Aquaman as King Arthur” as others have done with Superman as Christ. Not only does the film explicitly say he is named Arthur after the legendary king, but his character arc is very similar. He is a child raised by commoners away from the palace life, who rejects his status as heir to a throne, who eventually proves his worth as a king by wielding a legendary weapon while facing down a lady (monster) in the lake. He is very much Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, the reluctant lost king who must return to the throne and save the world.

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