Aquaman Review

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“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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

8/10

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Revisiting Batman Begins

Batman-Begins

Batman is one of the most iconic figures in popular culture. He first appeared in 1939, making him one of the earliest comic book characters. He has starred in numerous other media – from the campy, but beloved Adam West 1966 series, to 2017’s Justice League film. At this point, Batman may be the most popular comic book character. People always look forward to films with him in it. In 1989, Director Tim Burton gave Batman a new film for the big screen, which was arguably the turning point in the general public’s perception of the character. Keep in mind that the general audience at that point knew Batman from the 66 series – something not to be taken seriously. That changed in Burton’s Batman. Burton delivered a serious story, with a good take on the Joker. But, things went wrong two films later.

Batman Forever introduced campy elements into what was a serious film series. Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the Riddler was a joke, and don’t get me started on Two-Face in that film. Next, Batman and Robin needs no introduction, but that is the film that killed Batman’s film career for awhile. I don’t personally hate Batman and Robin – I think it’s a superior film to Forever. But, it’s easy to see why Batman and Robin is despised. That film had ice puns, and a generally silly feel. It was in stark contrast to the 1989 film. From 1997 to 2005, there was no Batman film on the big screen.

In 2005, Batman Begins released to critical acclaim. Director Christopher Nolan has remained one of the most passionate of directors, and it shows in Begins. The quality of the writing, and directing, is evident throughout. This film isn’t perfect – it’s a little choppy during the beginning and Christian Bale is at times a mediocre Bruce Wayne. But, everything comes together so well for such a thrilling climax. Batman Begins remains a very important film, and an excellent start to a fantastic trilogy.

The film’s first act is interesting, as it shows Bruce Wayne in a foreign prison camp. We don’t know too much of who he is, or what’s going on. His history is told through flashbacks. Here, I need to make mention that Linus Roache did such a great job portraying Thomas Wayne. There are many notable quotes in this film, and one of the best was Thomas telling Bruce, “And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Thomas was a man striving to do the right thing, someone a son could look up to. That’s why when Rachel later says, “Your father would be ashamed of you,” it hits home.

The opening act is a little choppy with its editing between present day and flashbacks. I think if the film had begun using all the flashback footage, and then cutting to Bruce at the prison camp, it would have been more effective. With that said, most of the film is excellent. Bruce’s training with Henri Ducard (who later reveals himself to be the true Ra’s al Ghul) was great, and Bruce’s assault on the temple was appropriately intense, as many scenes in this movie are.

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Upon my latest viewing of this film, I realized just how great of a character Ra’s al Ghul was. Liam Neeson delivers a perfect portrayal, delivering someone whom is passionate about his ideals, yet not overly eccentric, but subdued. Neeson is always calm, delivering fantastic dialogue. When facing Batman on the train, Bruce has the villain at knife point with a batarang. Ra’s calmly says, “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” Ra’s commands every scene he’s in. One of the best scenes in the entire film is when he reveals himself to Bruce at the latter’s mansion. Dialogue is brilliantly said again: “If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them… and stab them in the heart.” It’s a shame that Neeson’s portrayal of Ra’s al Ghul isn’t that discussed today. It’s probably because Heath Ledger’s Joker overshadowed him when The Dark Knight released. The Joker was excellent as well. But, Neeson’s portrayal should not be forgotten; he is easily one of the best villains of the 2000s. No version of Ra’s al Ghul has come close in quality to the one featured in Batman Begins.

Christian Bale is a good Batman, but sometimes a mediocre Bruce Wayne here. A rather odd scene is when Bruce is talking to Rachel at the hotel gathering. The dialogue, “It’s– not me. It’s… Inside, I am…I am more.” just seemed off and poorly said. As for Batman, it’s easy to forget that while serious, he does have some funny moments here. When breaking through the asylum, he tells the two inmates, “Excuse me.” In one not funny, but sweet scene, he gives his periscope to a little boy, because the other kids doesn’t believe him about Batman. All in all, Batman is an effective character in the film. I won’t lie though; him saying, “I’m Batman” was executed in a cheesy way.

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I really enjoyed Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Johnathan Crane/Scarecrow. The first scuffle between him and Batman was brilliantly choreographed. Later, the scene with Crane saying, “He’s here.” “The Batman.” was also well done. Overall, Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman’s rogues’ gallery has proved fascinating. In the trilogy, we had Scarecrow, Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, Two-Face, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, and Bane. It would have been great to see more films from the director. I would have loved to see Nolan’s take on the Riddler, or Mr. Freeze. One more villainous character deserves mention in Batman Begins: Carmine Falcone. One really great scene was when Bruce confronted Falcone at the latter’s pub. Tom Wilkinson as the crime boss delivered such great dialogue; it’s almost a shame that Scarecrow put him out of commission later in the story. (Then again, Crane frightening Falcone was such a great scene.)

Alfred, James Gordon, and Lucius Fox all contribute to the story. These characters are portrayed by skillful actors. Morgan Freeman has a commanding presence as Lucius Fox, and knows how to deliver humorous remarks subtly. It’s hard to say which version of Alfred is the definitive one, but one can make the case that Michael Caine’s is. As for Rachel, she was an enjoyable character who stood up for what’s right. She had good dialogue, such as “Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. Which is why we have an impartial system.” The scene where she held the little boy while holding a gun to inmates walking toward her was compelling. As for the soundtrack, Batman’s iconic theme comes from this film. It is powerful, and one of the best themes ever put on film. Though, one might say that the music themes are very similar to each other. I listened to the whole soundtrack as I wrote this review, and most of the music sounded the same. It’s not a terrible thing since the music is commanding. But, it should be noted that the soundtrack is not very diverse.

The action in this movie is brilliant. Every action scene is wonderfully directed. From Batman’s scuffle with Scarecrow, to the final battle in the train, this film has excellent, intense action. The climax is still one of the most thrilling in any comic book film 13 years later. Batman Begins, simply put, is a great movie. The battle against fear is a theme that is prevalent throughout the story. By the end, Bruce has fought his fear, and channeled it so he can bring hope into the streets of Gotham. Some films age well, others do not. 25 years from now, Batman Begins will still be a great watch.

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Wonder Woman Review

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Since her inception in 1941, Wonder Woman has remained not just the most famous female superhero – but also one of the biggest icons of pop culture. That’s why it’s shocking it’s taken this long for a movie about her to be made. Lesser known comic book characters like Electra and Steel have gotten feature films, but never Wonder Woman. Finally, that changed this year. Wonder Woman appeared in last year’s Batman V Superman, and while people were divisive on that film, many agreed that Gal Gadot’s brief portrayal of the character was solid. Now we get to see this version of Wonder Woman in a starring role. Director Patty Jenkins delivers a film full of heroism and inspiration. It’s a film worthy of the iconic character.

Wonder Woman as a character stands for justice, and the film does a fantastic job showing that. When Steve Trevor is forced to tell the truth on Themyscira, Diana’s reaction to it looks incredibly genuine. He says how the war has taken the lives of women and children, and the viewer knows at that moment, Diana is going to do something about it. From here, Diana continually showcases what being a hero is about. Two of the most notable scenes in the film are when she talks back to the government and when she decides to jump into battle to stop the oppression of the village of Veld. It’s inspiring, and the major reason why it’s so well done is Gal Gadot’s fantastic portrayal.

Diana has lived on an island away from mankind all her life, so it’s interesting how she reacts to things in the outside world. Her reaction to seeing a baby and ice cream for example are nice scenes. Her respect and love for people are evident, as seen in the aftermath of the Veld’s battle sequence. She stands on a rooftop as people clap and look above at her. What does she do then? She comes down to their level. She shakes hands and smiles – a truly touching scene showcasing the kind of character she is. This feels like the first time in a comic book film where we see such a powerful character on the same level with the people he/she protects.

The other main character is Steve Trevor. He’s had a long history with Wonder Woman in the comics, so it would be interesting to see how he would be used in the film. Chris Pine provides just the right amount of charisma without going overboard. Like Diana, Steve is portrayed as heroic, and becomes even more so because of her. The romance between him and Diana isn’t bad. Romance has a reputation in comic book films for being forced or poorly done, so it’s good to see a romance subplot actually passable.

Near the middle act of the film, the story introduces viewers to three characters that form Steve’s team to raid German High Command. There’s a problem with introducing a bunch of characters in the middle of a film. Not enough character or backstory is given here. We have Charlie, whom is supposed to be a sharpshooter. But what did he actually contribute? Then there’s Chief, but he also did nothing of importance. Only Sameer is given something to do. He mentions to Diana that it is his dream to be an actor, and later we get to see that acting ability in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes.

Steve’s secretary Etta Candy borders on being funny and over the top. Thankfully the film doesn’t go overboard with her. There are a few antagonists. Danny Huston as Ludendorff is a bit on the generic side, but he’s not terrible. He does his job at being a sinister army general. However, Dr. Isabel Maru (known as Dr. Poison) is far more interesting. There’s an unhinged nature to Elena Anaya’s portrayal of the doctor. The real villain however is Ares, and how his character comes together in the climax is brilliant. Though he only does big things in the last act, Ares cements himself as one of the better comic book movie antagonists.

Wonder Woman doesn’t disappoint in the action department. The early battle on Themyscira was well done. It takes a bit before the next big action sequence, but when it happens, it’s worth the wait. Diana’s stand against the German army at the village of Veld was awesome and well choreographed. It’s a nice balance between the street level Batman type of fighting and the grand Superman battles. The climax is divided into two major fight scenes, both of which are great. The showdown against Ares was a satisfying final action piece.

Though the film contains great action scenes, it’s something else that ultimately shines: the theme of love. It’s the genuine love of people that can conquer darkness and hate, as Diana displays. It’s a great message for a culture that promotes self-interest. The film’s soundtrack is strong, featuring the now iconic theme from Batman V Superman along with other quality themes. As for Themyscira, it’s a beautiful, unique setting. Though Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, doesn’t appear after the first act, she leaves a lasting impression along with Atiope.

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Overall, Wonder Woman is a great film. It’s full of genuine heroism and emotion. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the character is perfect. She displays everything Wonder Woman is meant to be. Steve Trevor is very good as well. (Sadly, most of the other characters don’t actually do much.) The war backdrop is interesting, and provides a great sense of victory when Diana rises to combat the army in the fantastic Veld sequence. The actions scenes are well done and Ares is an excellent final boss. To love others, to do the right thing, and to be a hero is what Wonder Woman is all about.

9/10

JUSTICE LEAGUE VS. TEEN TITANS REVIEW

I’ve always been a big fan of the comic book animated films. Sadly Marvel has seemingly given up on them, but DC has continued consistently. DC has a wide array of installments, some being completely original and others being adaptions. To better align with the comics, starting with Justice League: War the films have adopted The New 52 continuity. From a business standpoint, it made sense. Unfortunately as a viewer the films have been noticeably of lesser quality than pre-52 ones. The actual League is modernized, in a negative way. Is the latest film in this universe an improvement? Interestingly, Justice League vs. Teen Titans focuses as a sequel to both Throne of Atlantis and Batman: Bad Blood. It suffers some of the same ongoing negatives as previous entries but ended up being perhaps the best New 52 film.

We’ll get this out of the way first: Damien is still extremely annoying. Ever since debuting in Son of Batman, DC has been focused on making him a central focus in the films. Why? Who really knows. Surely they can see just about every line he has is terrible. He’s been doing nothing but disobeying orders and being rebellious since his first appearance, which is no different here. At the very least in the climax his character arc comes full circle in an admittedly well written sequence. In theory going forward he will be developed as a character, but time will tell.

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These movies usually start out with a great action sequence, and it’s no different here. We have the League battling the Legion of Doom. The actual fights are well animated, but Lex Luthor is written so cheaply. This wouldn’t be a bad thing too much if not for the fact the after credits sequence for Throne of Atlantis exists. There he apparently was enlisting Ocean Master to join with him in thematic fashion. None of that is mentioned in this film, instead making Luthor cannon fodder. One has to imagine if DC simply abandoned this plot point in favor of moving in another direction. At the very least, the Wonder Woman/Cheetah fight is probably their best encounter in animation.

Obviously the big draw is to see the team battle the Teen Titans. Like the Batman vs. Robin title, it’s a little misleading since the fight isn’t much of a focus at all. This could be a disappointment for those hoping to see a throw-down between the two teams. The next biggest draw then is of course the Titans themselves. This is their first major animation appearance since the show’s incarnation ended in 2006. (The slapstick comedy known as Teen Titans GO! doesn’t count.) It’s interesting seeing Starfire as the leader here, and she does an excellent job of it.

Blue Beetle was a bizarre choice to include. I suppose he was put there to be the Cyborg of the group. Besides rescuing Cyborg, he doesn’t do anything of major importance, but he wasn’t bad either. Beast Boy is pretty much lifted straight from the comics. Aside from one awful line near the end, he’s written as genuinely funny. (Perhaps the best line was when he said “awkward call to Batman” after Damien was literally fried.) Raven was a surprising highlight. One could say the story even revolved around her. Her backstory is somewhat similar to Damien’s, so it was interesting to see how the two connected. Her character arc was great to watch, and she had the best lines showing that she doesn’t have to give into evil. Taissa Farmiga did a terrific job voicing her.

Superman unfortunately spends most of the movie looking like a joke. This is consistent with his previous New 52 film appearances, which is a pale representation of the character we admire. Thankfully, the writing picks up with him in the climax where he actually feels like Superman. Batman is solid throughout, and the dialogue between him and Cyborg was fun to watch. Wonder Woman is very good, with perhaps her best appearance so far in the New 52 series. The League however appears rather unreasonable when they confront the Titans about Raven. Surely at least Flash would have objected to taking her by force.

The film has a few notable plot holes, the main ones which take place in Trigon’s hellish realm. Beast Boy randomly reacts to the environment, but goes back to normal some seconds later. The reason for this isn’t given and came off as rather odd. Another thing is that shouldn’t all these demons be working together? So why were they grabbing away Damien’s opponent when the latter was on the same side as them? This made no sense. Trigon like in his Teen Titans show appearance is a great antagonist to have around. His dialogue is perfect classic overlord fare. As basically the devil of DC, his taunting dialogue to Raven was very good, and of course the latter’s response even better. The climax offers a grand final battle. It’s not that fast-paced due to the large nature of the threat, but still gives a sense of climatic dread since the League members are getting thrown around. The soundtrack isn’t bad, though at the same time a little forgettable.

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Overall, Justice League vs. Teen Titans is a surprisingly solid entry in the DC animated film series. The story progresses nicely with the right amount of dialogue and action. The Titans were very good, (there’s a sense of thematic awe when we see the Tower for the first time) and hopefully they get to appear in another film. (Based on the mid-credits scene, it’s more than likely.) The story at the core however is not a vs, rather about a person defying her evil heritage. Raven was a fantastic focus and easily made the movie. The League mostly is solid this time around. Damien is still unbelievably annoying, and sadly it looks like he isn’t going away anytime soon. Still, if it’s one New 52 film you should check out, it’s this one.

8/10