AQUAMAN review by Mark Walters – James Wan’s fast & furious underwater epic is quite fun

AQUAMAN review by Mark Walters – James Wan’s fast & furious underwater epic is quite fun

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The DC Cinematic Universe has been on shaky ground for the past few years. Kicking off (technically) in 2013 with MAN OF STEEL, director Zack Snyder attempted to breathe new life into the big screen universe by showing us an action-packed and darker take on the Superman mythos, which met with mixed reviews and heavy fan criticism. He followed that with an ambitious venture in BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE in 2016, which tried to reinvent Batman for this new cinematic world, pushing away from the Christopher Nolan take on the character that wrapped up just four years prior in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Some (myself included) argued that it seemed a little soon to be showing Batman on the big screen again, and this film met with even more criticism, especially when showing two major comic book moments realized in an epic if not rushed way – an armored Batman fighting Superman which was lifted straight from Frank Miller’s beloved “The Dark Knight Returns” mini-series, and the “death” of Superman at the hands of Doomsday taken from the 1990s “Death of Superman” saga. It begged the question as to whether or not guys like Snyder understood that just because those comic stories are so cherished, does it really make sense to just lift key sections of them and cram them into a movie that’s already skirted some important world-building? One thing BvS got really right was the introduction and inclusion of Wonder Woman, played to perfection by Gal Gadot. This set up the next big screen DC movie which was a WONDER WOMAN origin film, a production that became a bonafide hit with fans and moviegoers, though it led into a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie that was more of a sloppy mess than it needed to be. Part of this may have been due to Zack Snyder leaving the film before its completion, causing Joss Whedon to be brought in to finish it out… which resulted in several re-shoots and a different script and tone than what was originally intended. Some say this was for the best, others think Whedon ruined it, and for the past year a persistent section of DC fans have insisted that Warner Bros is holding on to some supposed “Snyder Cut” of JUSTICE LEAGUE that they’ve convinced themselves is somehow and improvement over what Whedon did. I’m guessing those fans forgot the previous Snyder films for DC weren’t exactly perfect. All of this leads us to the newest DC movie hitting theaters this week. AQUAMAN has Jason Momoa reprising his role of Arthur Curry, one of the standout characters in JUSTICE LEAGUE. It’s also a far cry from the comic book counterpart in look and demeanor, but the fans seem to like what Momoa is doing with it. This ain’t just some guy who talks to fish, he’s an underwater god and king, and this movie may just make him as popular as Wonder Woman in the eyes of moviegoers.

We learn the origins of Arthur Curry as the film gets going, that his father was a lighthouse shore-man named Tom (Temuera Morrison) who discovered an injured ocean queen from Atlantis named “Atlanna” (Nicole Kidman). Tom nurses her back to health, and the two form an unlikely but strong romantic relationship, even bearing a child that they name after a hurricane… Arthur. But the romance is doomed, as Atlanna’s kingdom isn’t pleased with her absence, and they send soldiers to recover her, which puts Tom and Arthur in danger. She leaves, promising to return one day, and Tom must raise his half-breed child with superpowers that have yet to fully manifest themselves. As the years pass, Arthur trains in secret with Atlantis mastermind Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who helps him hone his powers, but can’t convince him that his destiny to be king is worth pursuing. Arthur as an adult (played by Momoa) is a misguided man who helps those in need, fighting sea pirates and water-based baddies. When he thwarts a mission to steal a armed submarine, his defeat of a ruthless pirate named Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) leads to that man’s father dying, causing Manta to vow revenge. Meanwhile, deep within the ocean, Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) seeks ultimate rule and a war on the human race for their careless actions against nature. Mera (Amber Heard) tracks down Arthur in hopes of convincing him to fight Orm for the throne, but he wants nothing to do with it. Realizing that Orm’s actions could effectively destroy the planet, Arthur finally decides to step up and do what is necessary to stop him. But with Orm’s armies in pursuit, and Manta plotting his own special revenge, the Aquaman may be facing unbeatable odds.

James Wan (INSIDIOUS, FURIOUS 7) directs the film, and has intentionally given it an otherworldly quality that feels like across between James Cameron’s AVATAR and what Marvel Studios did with BLACK PANTHER, showing us this high-tech underwater universe that is mesmerizing. Whenever the film delves into the Atlantis scenery, it’s stunning and dream-like, and you just want to see more of it. It’s also one of those films where certain scenes are so effects-heavy, you honestly don’t know quite where to look, but you’re loving what you see. Some of the “on land” sequences don’t play quite as well, perhaps because the underwater stuff is so magical and well done. There are scenes where Arthur and Mera head to the Sahara desert in a TOMB RAIDER-esque quest to find an long lost hidden message from the former king of Atlantis. This sequence leads into a chase scene that is impressively shot and choreographed, but turns the movie into a video game and kind of takes away from the epic qualities it had before. Some of the “talking” scenes are hit and miss, and there’s a few sequences that go almost a little too far into the comedic realm. The tonal balance of AQUAMAN is all over the place, but it never slows down long enough for you to get overly critical. This is a movie that definitely caters to short attention spans, and is always showing you something exciting, which may help cover up some of the less-appealing qualities.

The way Jason Momoa plays Aquaman is actually quite refreshing, as he’s not the standard superhero type. Arthur Curry doesn’t want to be a hero, he doesn’t feel destiny calling him, and at times sees his abilities and connection with Atlantis as more of a burden than a gift. But he’s a good person, and does get a perhaps misunderstood satisfaction in helping those in need… a sort of reluctant savior. He’s also aesthetically interesting, with his obviously muscular frame covered in tribal tattoos, his bedhead hair and trucker beard, you can see this guy being a superhero you’d actually want to have a beer with. He even emotes like something across between a trucker and surfer, nothing at all like a royal king, yet he commands respect when things get serious and he furrows his brow in anger. To put it simply, Momoa found a new and interesting way to play a comic book hero, and it works more often than it doesn’t. Amber Heard is sophisticated and serious playing Mera, a character you almost hope will loosen up if things start going her way, but you can see her dedication and devotion to her home world and feel the necessity in her efforts with Arthur. Willem Dafoe is also interesting as Vulko, a man who is driven by his beliefs and concerns, fiercely loyal but also reasonable in the face of chaos. Patrick Wilson as Orm/Ocean Master steps up in playing the villain of the piece, and turns in a solid reading and understandable motivation – Orm wants to destroy the outside world because the outside world is destroying itself… you can’t help but sympathize a bit with his reasons, though his resolve is of course a bit too extreme.

Some of the other characters feel a little underdeveloped, like Dolph Lundgren as Orm’s supportive ally King Nereus, or Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the vengeful Black Manta – both probably could have used a little more screen time to develop their respective roles and given them more weight in the story. Black Manta as a bad guy is actually handled quite well in terms of presentation, especially considering how the character looks in full costume in the comics, as that’s one villain I never thought would translate on screen. There are also some odd characters popping in that almost seem unnecessary, like Randall Park as a conspiracy theorist trying to convince newscasters that Atlantis is in fact real and a threat to humans… it’s comic relief that feels like it was transplanted from another movie. Faring better in the supporting characters department are Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s mom Atlanna, and Temuera Morrison as Arthur’s father Tom Curry. There’s a beautiful love story there that adds some gravitas to this narrative, and both actors make the most of their scenes. I love the casting of Morrison in particular, as he comes from a sort of international cinematic tough guy pedigree, and feels right in a “Of course he’s playing Arthur’s dad” kind of way.

The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is particularly pleasing, mixing an epic adventure sound with a high-tech TRON-like undertone. The music actually elevates many of the underwater scenes and helps give them that alien feel. James Wan really found an amazing look for this movie, doing subtle but effective things in various scenes that really makes you think you’ve been transported into this magical place. Yes, the Atlantean folks talk to each other underwater, and it works, but seeing their hair move slowly the way hair actually moves underwater… it’s just awesome to behold. If AQUAMAN suffers from anything, it’s that it feels like at some point there was a much bigger movie here. Even with its healthy two hour and 23-minute run time, it seems like we’re missing some of the story. There’s a giant climatic battle at the end with all these different underwater races, and it seems to come out of nowhere, like there was meant to be more exposition establishing those various deep sea cities and creatures. I recall one scene earlier where we visit a specific race that look like green sea monkeys, but when the battle starts you see several different factions charging in, and I had this feeling of “Wait, who are these guys?” So I can’t help but wonder if at some point there was more story either filmed or planned to be filmed that just never made the final cut.

Some folks have asked me where I’d rank AQUAMAN in the DC films, and I’d definitely put it high… possibly better than WONDER WOMAN just in terms of story, but that’s partly because WONDER WOMAN‘s story was pretty by-the-numbers where this is taking us (quite literally) into uncharted waters. For those wondering how it stands up to the Marvel Studios movies, I’d compare it to the first THOR and BLACK PANTHER in terms of the ideas within it, but there’s enough unique stuff here to make this very fun ride hold its own. I do think AQUAMAN is going to surprise some folks, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction for the DC movies. And in case you had any doubt, Jason Momoa’s leading man status is definitely solidified now. Be sure to stay through the credits for a fun stinger scene.

AQUAMAN opens December 21, 2018

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.