“Fun” is an overused word in the area of film criticism. At the same time, it’s still a great term to use in describing certain kinds of movies. There are films that may not be good critically speaking, but have some entertainment value that boring stories with better production values do not have. However, there are many great pieces of cinema that are both “fun” and and well made. The Avengers is one such movie, having a fun tone throughout, while also having consistently strong writing, never sacrificing storytelling for comedy. A movie like Aquaman leans more toward the camp of being fun, but flawed. But, it’s still leagues above films like Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, comic book movies that sacrifice storytelling for unfunny comedy.
There are areas of greatness in Aquaman – Aquaman’s character arc of becoming king is mostly engaging, the battles are excellent, and the visuals are some of the most unique yet. (It’d be tough to think of a better underwater film visual wise.) The movie does suffer from unfunny comedic scenes, and a decent, but generic antagonist. The DC film universe is an interesting case, as it was clearly designed at first to be the opposite of what Marvel was doing. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were darker, and deeper films than many comic book films. But, many viewers criticized the gritty take on the characters. Going forward, the films began to take a different look. Aquaman is similar to Wonder Woman, in that it is still a serious movie, but negates the grittiness in favor of a standard tone. Wonder Woman is a fantastic film. Aquaman lacks the quality writing of that film, but is still an enjoyable undersea epic.
Aquaman takes place after Stepphenwolf’s attack on the world in Justice League. Here, we see Arthur Curry as a man who wants nothing to do with Atlantis. But when he sees that his half-brother, King Orm, means to war with the surface world, Arthur is convinced by Princess Mera to challenge Orm. What follows is a duel, followed by a quest to find the lost Trident of Atlantis…
The problem with Aquaman’s inclusion in Justice League was that the character was not given enough time to flesh out. That film introduced Cyborg, Aquaman, and Flash, not a whole lot of time to give these characters backstories. Cyborg succeeded, but Aquaman was arguably the least compelling member of the team. He was portrayed as brash and hardcore, endearing traits perhaps, but not without knowing the character ahead of time. Aquaman the movie fixes this for the most part. He is clearly a character with a good heart, and a sense of humor. A good sequence was him saving the sailors early on and telling them, “Hurry up, I’m missing happy hour for this.” By the end of the movie, Arthur has emerged with the characteristics of a king, and looks to be a character who will be (almost) as compelling as Wonder Woman.
With all that said though, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman has some painfully unfunny moments. This is more due to the writing than the actor. Aquaman saying “screw you” to the Karathen came off as forced, and some of the comedy was just cringe worthy. (The scene with Mera and Arthur discussing the ship’s smell comes to mind.) It’s usually best when comedy flows naturally than when a film takes a scene to get the viewer laughing. While not an absolute deal breaker, there are cringe-worthy scenes (complete with the goofy music in the background to let the viewer know that this is supposed to be funny dialogue) that could have been removed.
Speaking of Mera, she was a strong character overall. Her passion for Atlantis is genuine. She and Aquaman make for a good team. The scenes in Sicily with Arthur showing her surface world life was nice. With that said, I think the romance between the two characters should have been saved for the sequel. What’s unintentionally funny is that in the climatic battle, Mera literally says they have to end the battle now. Instead of Arthur going right away to battle Ocean Master, they decide to share a rather long kiss. This is happening in the middle of an underwater war, so the timing of this scene was definitely poor.
As Roger Ebert said in his review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “Each film is only as good as its villain.” If this is true, it’s a good thing that Aquaman has Black Manta. The film’s primary antagonist, King Orm/Ocean Master, is decent, but forgettable. Orm says almost everything a viewer would expect from a character in his position; there isn’t much in the way of unique or new. The problem is that Patrick Wilson doesn’t deliver much of his lines with passion. Michael Shannon’s Zod from Man of Steel was a clearly passionate character. Ares from Wonder Woman had a sense of grandeur, same with Stephhenwolf. Even Lex Luthor from Batman v Superman was more charismatic and interesting than Orm. Ocean Master isn’t as one-dimensional as Malekith from Thor: The Dark World, but he does not make any notable mark in the world of cinema.
Meanwhile, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s portrayal of Black Manta was a highlight. Early on, we see the reason why he grows to hate Arthur. It’s a compelling character arc, one that will hopefully take the center focus in the sequel. The scenes with Manta and Arthur are fantastic. As for other characters, Willem Defoe turns in a compelling performance as Vulko, servant to the throne, and a teacher for Arthur (shown through flashbacks). A particularly strong performance was Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus. The early discussion between Orm and Nereus was great, mainly because Lundgren gave Nereus a charismatic edge that Orm did not have. Hopefully Nereus will return with an even bigger role in the sequel.
There are some great action sequences in this movie. Easily the most exciting was Aquaman against Black Manta in Sicily. The scenery was unique, and the choreography was excellent. The two showdowns between Arthur and Ocean Master were also good. Visuals wise – Aquaman is unparalleled. There’s a scene with Aquaman and Mera travelling underwater, and the viewer is treated to an almost fairy tale-like Atlantis. The CGI is solid, with Karathen being a big highlight in the climax. As for the music, the film’s soundtrack overall is one of the stronger comic book movie soundtracks.
Overall, Aquaman is a solid entry in the DC film lineup. Most of the characters are solid, the action is great, and the visuals are wonderful. However, it’s not in the same league as Wonder Woman, or Man of Steel. Aquaman lacks the all around great script those two films had. The humor can be mixed, and Ocean Master was a dull antagonist compared to Black Manta. The film is still very enjoyable, nicely setting up Arthur as the King of Atlantis, and for what comes next in the story.