Aquaman (2018) Review
THE HERO OF THE DCEU
It goes without saying that Marvel’s cinematic universe of superheroes (i.e. the “MCU”) has proven to be a juggernaut franchise force, producing connected shared universe of superheroes feature films since 2008. Thus, in an attempt to show their superhero determination in Hollywood, Warner Bros. Pictures produced the DCEU (DC Extended Universe), utilizing the superheroes characters from DC Comics in a way to combat the Marvel’s cinematic universe. Beginning back in 2013 with their initial first film release Man of Steel, the DCEU has (unfortunately) had a bumpy road in producing a solid foundation to build upon. While Man of Steel showcased the grandeur superhero purpose and ambition of what the studio wanted to showcases for their own shared universe of comic book heroes and villains, their follow-up sequels Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad (both released in 2016), while were considered financially successful, were received with heavy scrutiny, criticism, and division amongst critics as well as moviegoers. A year later, 2017’s Wonder Woman provided the DCEU with a proper footing, with the film reaching critical acclaim, receiving largely positive reviews and having an incredible lucrative run at the box office during its theatrical release. However, just as Wonder Woman set up the proper stage for the DCEU to be successful, Justice League (the DCEU’s first large ensemble superhero team up feature) was released during the latter months of 2017 and was heavy criticized by critics and fans as well as underperforming at the box office with the franchise’s lowest number. Thus, with the failed prospects of the Justice League not reaching its intended goal, the lingering shadow of doubt has been cast upon the DCEU, spelling out an uncertain future for this once potential superhero shared universe. Now, a year after the release of Justice League, Warner Bros. Pictures and director James Wan present the next installment in the DCEU with the superhero movie Aquaman. Can this cinematic undersea adventure rise to the occasion of being the “shining beacon” for the DCEU or is it the final nail in the coffin for this shared comic book universe?
In the 1980s, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) escaped from her arranged marriage in Atlantis, washing ashore and being rescued by local lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), with the pair soon falling in love and producing a young baby named Arthur. When Atlantis soldiers emerge from the depths to reclaim Atlanna, Arthur is let in Thomas’s care, raised with human attitude and Atlantean powers (a product of a being of two worlds). Decades later, Arthur (Jason Momoa) is known as superhuman “Aquaman”, helping those in need of ocean rescue between mugs of beer and enjoying his life. However, trouble comes to find Arthur, when he’s confronted by Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who pleads with him to venture to Atlantis and take his rightful place as its king, preventing its current ruler King Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother, from waging war against the surface world. Unbeknownst to Orm, Mera and the royal vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) have found a clue that will lead Arthur to the legendary lost trident of King Atlan (Graham McTavish) and, if proven worthy to retrieve the weapon, he will wield the power of the seas and be able to take the throne from Orm’s iron grip. However, Arthur isn’t quite enthused by the plan and has nothing to do with the kingdom nor be its ruler. Meanwhile, Orm is trying to untie the remaining underwater kingdoms with the help of Mera’s father King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), in order to start a war with the surface dwellers. In addition, Arthur makes an enemy out of David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a ruthless pirate killer, who has a personal vendetta to settle with the Aquaman. With so many enemies working against him, it’s unclear if Arthur will be able to find Atlan’s trident in time and whether he’ll be worthy to wield it order to prevent the coming war. Thus, Arthur must become more than a king…he must become a hero.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As many of you know (if you’ve been following my blog), I’m been a big fan of superhero movies, especially the MCU and their comic books feature films within its shared cinematic universe. However, that’s not to say that would completely bash the DCEU (like many have), but I simply cannot deny the fact their movies have had several major problems that do hurt the films from being hailed as cinematic superhero greatness. To me, I actually liked Man of Steel, being setting up a very intricate (and grandiose) backstory / origin film for this new iteration of Superman as well as establishing the first entry within this cinematic world of DC superheroes. However, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was just too busy in trying to serve too many masters (i.e. being a sequel to Man of Steel, an origin story for Affleck’s Bruce Wayne / Batman, and setting up further DC superheroes within this shared universe) and Suicide Squad, while having a fun / unique premise and a recognizable cast, had a thin plot and undeveloped bad guy / villainy that ultimately didn’t leave up to the film’s overall hype. However, Wonder Woman arrived on the scene and blew many away, including myself, as it was a great superhero origin story (thanks to actress Gal Gadot in the role of Diana / Wonder Woman and director Patty Jenkins’s overall direction for the film) and a shining beacon of hope for the DCEU. Unfortunately, that shining beacon of hope diminished with the arrival Justice League, which I found to be disappointing and felt as a letdown. There were some parts of it that I liked, but (like Suicide Squad) the movie didn’t live up its own hype; making Justice League a pretty unsatisfying follow-up installment to Wonder Woman. All in all, while the MCU has found a winning formula, the DCEU still stands on shaky ground with an uncertain future looming beyond the horizons…. looking for another big hit to save this shared universe franchise.
This, of course, brings me back to talking about Aquaman, the sixth superhero entry in the DCEU and one of the last comic book superhero movies of 2018. Given how much Justice League left such a “sour taste” in my mouth, I wasn’t too excited to see another DCEU and, while I liked his appearance in Justice League, I wasn’t enthralled to see an Aquaman movie. To be honest, of the pantheon of DC comic book superheroes, I wasn’t a big fan of Aquaman. I mean, I was curious to see how Warner Bros. was gonna try to salvage the DCEU, but I was more excited about Wonder Woman 2 (i.e. Wonder Woman 1984) rather a solo Aquaman film. However, after seeing the film’s various trailers along with the announcement of the film’s cast (Momoa, Heard, Wilson, Dafoe, Kidman, etc.), I was getting more and more excited to see this movie. I mean, the film’s visuals looked fantastic (from the movie trailers) and looked like a big budgeted popcorn superhero feature; something that I like and something worth watching for those who like “escapism” within motion pictures. Thus, I was pretty excited to see Aquaman, but still had a tiny lingering shroud of doubt in the back of my mind that this movie could be another superhero bomb for the DCEU like Justice League. So, despite my busy schedule of work (yes, I do work in retail…hooray for that), I went to see Aquaman during its opening night, with eager anticipation. So, what did I think of it? Well, it was awesome. While it lacks a sort of refinement finesse, Aquaman makes up for it’s large scale visuals and fantasy adventure narrative for a highly palpable (and crowd pleasing) cinematic superhero endeavor. Like Wonder Woman, Aquaman stands on its own merits and is arguably one of the better entries of the DCEU.
Aquaman is directed James Wan, whose previous directorial works includes several noteworthy horror movies (including Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring) as well as the action feature film Furious 7. So, with his background more in the horror genre, it was a bit odd to see Wan helming a superhero movie, especially from a major studio that desperately needs a “win” for this cinematic franchise. To his credit, Wan provides to be perfectly fine in the role of directing Aquaman, projecting a crystal-clear image and capable of handling a big-budgeted blockbuster. What’s most impressive of Wan’s vision for this Aquaman movie is the film’s overall scope. The whole narrative (from start to finish) feels very large, expansive, and epic, with Wan wanting to express a certain type of a large-scale grandiose for the feature. While it’s an ambitious gamble for a blockbuster feature to pull this off (i.e. bigger doesn’t always mean better), Wan seems to have a great understanding of handling such a large vision for this movie and the film’s final product definitely shows that. Yes, there’s plenty of large usage of CGI visuals throughout Aquaman’s runtime, but Wan still makes the film’s main character the heart and soul of the film’s story, using the movie’s action set-pieces for “eye candy” and making its various players large-than-life characters, with some providing to have a particular earnest emotions of classic superhero tropes. In addition, Wan makes Aquaman follow its own “drum” with movie having a different from its DCEU predecessors by adding more of a “humor” side, with some cheesy one-liners throwing into the mix. While some might balk at the idea of its usage in the movie, it actually does work and provides Aquaman with its own rhythm and styles. All in all, Wan’s directing provides a great balance of large big-screen action and crafting a visual spectacle, which makes Aquaman big-time fun (something that the DCEU needs right now).
The film’s screenplay, which was penned by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and story by Wan, Beall, and DC’s own Geoff Johns, follows a classic fantasy adventure trope that, while still has plenty of current superhero movie nuances throughout, feels more of a “hero’s journey” story arc. In truth, the film’s narrative is infused with other recognizable influences, taking cues from the legend of King Arthur, Shakespearean motifs (most notable between Arthur and Orm), a little bit of Indiana Jones, a little bit of Lord of Rings, and healthy dose of recognizable comic book story the hero creating his own enemy (kind of like Iron Man 3) as well as commentary theme / message about a bi-racial person coming to terms with his dual linage within himself. While all these ideas seem like a cobbled-up story for this particular movie, it all does come together (cohesively) in making Aquaman a big blockbuster adventure that has a lot to like about it. Additionally, the film’s script feels like a balance between silly nature and comic book superhero frivolities with a more “grounded” take on the character Arthur Curry and making the feature feel like an undersea fantasy epic (completely with various kingdoms, questing, legendary weapons, and an evil king). Thus, even if you don’t like the cast or the visuals, the narrative story arc in Aquaman is quite epic and grand. As a side-note, both the film’s script and Wan’s directing make the movie feel like a standalone superhero feature, with the movie’s story primarily focused on the current narrative and not so much on connecting Aquaman to the rest of the DCEU. Thus, the movie stands on it’s two feet, without the assistance of the other superhero nuances from the franchise’s past entries.
In terms of movie / filmmaking presentation, Aquaman is gorgeously beautiful and dazzling as a visual feast for the eyes. The movie’s visual elements throughout the feature are quite impressive with Wan setting out to cultivate (cinematically speaking) an underwater utopian epic and he certainly does deliver on that particular vision with the movie’s final product demonstrating it wonderfully. All the variety non-human underwater creatures / beings and the various under sea settings (locales and vistas) are stunning, realistically projecting in way that feels both fantastic and quite immersive. There are few sequences I noticed (here and there) where the CGI is a bit messy, but those sequences are few and far between. To be sure, the movie requires a lot of CG visual wizardry in the movie, but Wan uses those particular elements to great effect in making Aquaman’s strikingly breath-taking and probably the best visual film of the DCEU. Thus, it goes without saying that Aquaman should be seeing on the largest screen format as possible (whether in theaters or in at a person’s own home).
In conjunction with the film’s beautifully rendered visuals, I do have to mention that the entire art direction team (including the conceptual artists) must be commended for their creative / imaginative efforts on the movie. Personally, I was so impressive with all the designs work for all the locations and settings for the movie as well as the multiple of undersea creatures. I mean…I knew that the movie was gonna have some type of creative juices in bringing this underwater world to life, but the whole creative designs and depictions (the first shots of Atlantis are breath-taking beautiful) are visually awesome. They don’t feel derivative or throwback from other films out there, with Aquaman’s visual flair and layout “look and feel” is its own (and I love it). In addition, the film’s cinematography work Kirk. M Morri is also equally, playing up those particular visual-filled moments masterfully and making the feature feel so striking epic with all its various camera angles and powerfully superhero drama sequences. Other notable filmmaking areas worth include the production designs by Bill Brzeski, set decorations by Danielle Berman / Beverley Dunn, and costume designs by Kym Barrett; each one bringing a certain type of quality to Aquaman’s proceedings. Also, the film’s music score, which was composed by Rupert-Gregson Williams, is absolutely epic sounding, playing pitch perfectly with the feature’s grandiose aqua superhero adventure and bringing the same exact size and scale with its melodies. In addition, the film’s soundtrack also features two songs in Aquaman, with “Everything I Need” by Skylar Grey and “Ocean to Ocean” by Pitbull ft. Rhea (which is a partial cover to Toto’s Africa). Yes, I do know that it sounds weird, especially to hear in the movie, but it is quite catchy and I’ve already downloaded “Ocean to Ocean” as well as “Everything I Need” on iTunes.
Despite a lot of positive things to like about Aquaman, there were a few minor negative criticism points that I noticed that, while it doesn’t derail the feature, becomes a cinematic blemish on an otherwise great superhero DECU film. Perhaps the most noticeable one that comes to mind is how much narrative is crammed into the movie. Don’t get me wrong…I do love the film’s narrative (again, it has that classic fantasy adventure storyline arc throughout), but there’s a lot to explain, show, and cutaway to during the film’s runtime, which sits at 143 minutes (i.e. two hours and twenty-three minutes). Like I said above, the movie feels boring, with plenty to visually see and hearing throughout the film, but the narrative is very much so bloated (to a certain degree) that it becomes a bit hard for Wan to tackle (fully and wholesomely), with particular storyline threads getting shortchanged in the final product of Aquaman. This is most prevalent in backstory of the seven undersea kingdoms and their various evolutions or devolutions of the creatures / beings who dwell within each oceanic realm. There’s a quick expositional on the “lay of the land” (or rather “lay of the sea”) on these underwater kingdoms, but it happens rather quickly and becomes a bit of a “head scratcher” on sorting out “who’s who” of these respective kingdoms. I kind of sort of wanted to know more, even if it was just an expositional scene her and there. There are other areas where this “crammed narrative” becomes problematic and could’ve benefited from Wan (as well as Beall and Johnson-McGoldrick) from refining the feature a bit.
To be honest, that leads to another minor problem that I noticed with the movie, which is an overall refinement polish to the feature. Yes, the movie look “visually” amazing and certain is brimming with fantastic ideas, concepts, and cinematic nuances, but it lacks (only a little bit mind you) of a polished finish in its undertaking, most notably within its dialogue and storytelling. Again, along with the overstuffed narrative being told, the film’s dialogue is a bit clunky at times, with some lines being more over-the top and a bit silly, especially from the actor / actresses that are speaking them. Of course, they’re acting talents hide it a little bit, but it’s noticeable in a few scenes. Additionally, in comparison to Wonder Woman (the other highly praised DCEU film), Aquaman seems a bit less refined. Yes, both reflect their own signature qualities as well as the more modern take on the superhero genre, but Wonder Woman has more dramatic finesse, with sharper dialogue and a more wholesome story. Aquaman tries to do that (to the beat of its own drum), but doesn’t quite reach that cinematic dramatic. I know that it is hard to compare the two films (each one having its own style and preference), but I felt that Wonder Woman has a better story and better dialogue, but I think that Aquaman’s world building concept and visual aesthetics are better. So, I guess it’s a bit of a “give and take” sort of thing. Again, I do have to say that these are criticism points are mostly minor ones and don’t really distract my overall liking of Aquaman.
The cast for Aquaman is a solid one, with plenty of recognizable faces appearing throughout the feature. Like I mentioned, some of their characters are a bit two-dimensional, but are elevated a bit by the theatrical talents (or even screen-presence) of the collective group of actors and actresses in the film. Leading the charge (of course) is actor Jason Momoa, who plays the film’s hero protagonist character of Arthur Curry / Aquaman. After his cameo-like appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and a much larger supporting role in Justice League, Momoa, known for his roles in Game of Thrones, Conan, and Stargate Atlantis, seems quite accustomed with Arthur’s carefree “bro” personality and how he perfectly portrays it. In his own movie, Momoa continues to portray to play up the more “humorous / fun” sides of the character, but he’s definitely given more depth to work with as Aquaman explores the character’s vulnerability and how he must come to terms on who is and how he’s worthy of bridging the two worlds of land and sea. Physically, Momoa is perfectly casted in the role, providing enough manly bravado in the lead character of Aquaman and does know how to put on the cheesy charm for the feature. While his dialogue is a bit silly in a few scenes, Momoa embraces it and is fully committed to the role. To be honest, I think he does a great job, especially since he brings his own rhythm and rhyme to the character of Arthur Curry, making this iteration of Aquaman his own. In short, Jason Momoa is perfectly casted in the role of Aquaman and certain does bring a sense of charm and rock-star bravado to the superhero character.
Behind Momoa’s Arthur is the character of Princess Mera (Arthur’s companion / love interest). Heard, known for her roles in The Rum Diary, Magic Mike XXL, and 3 Days to Kill provides enough superhero context in the role of Mera, giving the character enough to do throughout the movie as well as being capable of handling herself in the film’s action beats. Heard is perfectly fine in the movie (not quite sure of the fiery red wig, but it grows on you as the movie progresses), but just doesn’t make the character her own or rather she doesn’t leave her own personal stamp on the character (like Momoa does with Arthur). Sadly, the love interest aspect between Momoa and Heard is cliched and pretty eye-rolling. It’s serviceable for the movie, but feels more like a something for 10-year-old. On the flip side, the movie doesn’t really give the romantic platform that much room to grow and flourish. I assume it will be further explored in a future installment.
In the villain category, actor Patrick Wilson plays the film’s main antagonist character of King Orm (the ambitious current ruler of Atlantis and Arthur’s ruthless half-brother). Wilson, known for his roles in Watchmen, The Conjuring, and Phantom of the Opera, does a turn a memorable performance in his portrayal of Orm, despite the character himself being a bit of a cliché villain. He provided enough material to play around with to serve as the film’s “big bad” and does fit the bill, making a suitable choice for Orm. Plus, just like Heard with Momoa, Wilson is a great foil for Momoa. Thus, while the character isn’t the most creative or complexed, Wilson is great in the role of Orm. Unfortunately, the big disappointment character of the movie is the treasure hunter / mercenary character of David Kane (aka the Black Manta), who is played by actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Get Down and The Greatest Showman). While Abdul-Mateen II acting / performance in the movie is perfectly fine for the role of David Kane, the character himself is pretty weak in the film. This is mostly due to the character’s involvement in the movie’s main narrative thread, for the character is, more or less, a side character, with the movie only using him sparsely and merely utilizing the character for an origin / villainy setup. Basically, you could easily remove the character from the movie and his absence storyline wouldn’t affect the overall outcome of the movie. Thus, the character of David Kane / Black Manta is woefully underdeveloped and is mostly for fan service in the movie or rather continuity for superhero and mostly there for setup for future involvement (possibly Aquaman 2).
In larger supporting roles, the film employs several more recognizable actors and actresses to fill out these side characters. This includes actress Nicole Kidman (Cold Mountain and Moulin Rouge!) as Arthur and Orm’s mother Queen Atlanna, actor Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate and The Florida Project) as Arthur’s mentor / Atlantean royal vizier Nuidis Vulko, and actor Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV and Universal Soldier) as King Nereus, one of the other rulers of the undersea kingdoms as well as Mera’s father. These three individuals have large secondary roles in the movie, with all performing quite well in their respective characters and do bolster the film’s primary characters throughout the feature.
Rounding out the cast (in minor supporting roles) is actor Graham McTavish (Outlander and Creed) as King Atlan, actor Temuera Morrison (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Moana) as Arthur’s human father Thomas Curry, actor Michael Beach (If Beale Street Could Talk and Soul Food) as David Kane’s father Jesse Kane, actor Ludi Lin (Marco Polo and Power Rangers) as Captain Murk, and actor John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark) as the Brine King, and actor Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator and Blood Diamond), actress Natalia Safran (Flypaper and Hours), and actress Sophia Forr (Love Child and The Water Diviner) as the Fishermen royal family (King Ricou, Queen Rina, and Fisherman Princess) respectfully. Additionally, legendary actress Judi Andrews (Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music) makes a small cameo in the movie, but I’ll leave that for you (the viewers) to found out who she is in the film.
Lastly, in true superhero movie fashion, be sure to stick around for a secret Easter Egg ending during the film’s credits. It’s a mid-credit one (so you don’t have to wait to long) and does show a setup for what’s in store for Aquaman 2.
Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) embarks upon a journey and becomes the person he was born to be in the movie Aquaman. Director James Wan’s latest film sees the iconic DC superhero character getting his own superhero origin movie, projecting a very fun and unique DCEU feature that separates itself from the rest of its predecessors. While there are a few minor pieces that the movie can’t iron out completely (a crammed narrative, a weak secondary baddie), but the film succeeds own its own merits, especially thanks to Wan’s directing, a grand underwater world (creative / visually rendered realm), and a Momoa’s unique swagger to the superhero character. Personally, I loved this movie. There were a few bits that I thought that Wonder Woman did better, but (by and large) Aquaman dances (or rather swims) to the beat of its own drums. It visual amazing, epic in its scope, and largely entertaining in its classic hero’s journey. It truly is the best DCEU movie that’s current out. Thus, it comes as no surprise that my recommendation for this movie is extremely solid “highly recommended” as there is plenty of fun and blockbuster energy to keep a viewer happily entertained throughout the film’s story. Given the positive reviews from both critics and moviegoers alike, it’s safe to assume that there’s gonna be an Aquaman 2 on the horizon sometime soon. It’s just a question of when…though I’m imagine in the next few years. In the end, does Aquaman turn the tide in the DCEU franchise? It’s hard to say, but it’s a step in the right direction (much like what Wonder Woman was able to achieve). Still, Aquaman stands as a crowning achievement and rousing crowd-pleasing win for the DCEU, acting as a fun standalone feature as well as a highly satisfying entry within this shared cinematic universe of DC superheroes.
4.4 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: December 21st, 2018
Reviewed On: December 25th, 2018
Aquaman is 143 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, for some language
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Good, detailed review. Thank you. I look forward to this one.
Wife and I went to see this tonight and thoroughly enjoyed it. Everything in your review is right on the mark. The visuals are awesome. I like how they made the underwater scenes appear underwater but it wasn’t distracting from the actors and action. I also thought the narrative was too much. It tried to cram a too much in while maintaining the length of the epic fight scenes. Black Manta took a lot away from the movie for me, I think it would have been better to introduce him late in the film and continue that conflict in the next one (assuming there is, they sure set it up). I’d rather had more information on the 7 kingdoms and less Black Manta. On a side note- Nicole Kidman – how awesome was she? 51 years old, looks great, and that first fight scene with her was impressive.
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Great thorough review, had my Superfriends bingo on, so was scoring the times Aquaman did something from that cartoon show. I enjoyed the spectacle…..but you’re right, too much plot being squeezed in. Black Manta really deserved more air time or even better a separate movie (he’s a fave of my tween, so we were like what???? why so little airtime?).
On a side note – I really hope we get more Aquaman, like Wonder Woman, they bring heart and joy to the DC universe, something sorely lacking in some of the other movies you’ve mentioned.