Aquaman Review

aquaman poster

“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…

aquaman vs. ocean master

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.

black manta

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

Creed II Review – The Best Film in the Rocky Series?

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Creed II is the best film I’ve seen this year. Some movies are extremely well directed, well acted, and come together perfectly. Others, like the recently released Venom, are done with seemingly the only intent of entertaining – and not in a smart way. Creed II, directed by Steven Caple Jr., continues the story from Creed back in 2015. It is a continuation of the overall Rocky series, one of the most iconic franchises in film. This was a production that was taken seriously by everyone involved, to make sure it was a worthy sequel to a great film and another chapter in the Rocky saga.

At this point, it can be tough to create a story that isn’t similar to previous movies. A common complaint is that Creed II is too similar to the movies before it. That is technically a legitimate complaint. Creed II features the protagonist thinking he’s ready for the fight, but is soundly defeated. He then goes into a depression, but is soon brought back to life and trains hard. In the rematch, he takes the advantage. It’s a comeback story, but not dissimilar to what we’ve seen before, preventing the film from feeling too unique among other Rocky films.

At the same time, I would argue that Creed II executes these “generic” tropes exceptionally well, to the point one can watch the film without the thought, “Well, that’s just too similar to Rocky III.” Creed II has a lot more going on other than the loss, and build up to the rematch. The relationship between Adonis and Bianca takes a center focus, and it’s wonderful. The Dragos’ part of the plot is fascinating. (We’ll talk more about that soon.) Finally, the ending is emotional and avoids a generic knockout trope, cementing the climax as the best in the series.

Creed II continues the story of Adonis Creed. He is now the heavyweight champion of the world, and things are looking good for him. He proposes to his girlfriend of three years, Bianca Taylor, and soon they learn that she will be giving birth to a baby. Meanwhile, Ivan Drago, the Russian antagonist from Rocky IV, has come to Philadelphia with an announcement to Rocky: Ivan’s son Viktor will beat Adonis in the ring. After a public declaration, Adonis has the choice of whether or not to accept the challenge and fight Viktor. This is something personal as well, as Ivan was responsible for the death of Apollo Creed, the father of Adonis. Adonis of course agrees, although Rocky does not want anything to do with it. From there, Adonis enters the ring enraged and doesn’t fight smart. He loses, and is crippled for a bit. After talking, Rocky decides to train him, and the road to the rematch begins…

rocky and creed

Sylvester Stallone steals every scene as the retired boxer. Any scene can be taken as a highlight, but one particular interesting one was Rocky attempting to talk Adonis out of the battle with Viktor Drago. Rocky talks from experience, not wanting Adonis to end up like Apollo. This is especially personal for Rocky because he could have thrown in the towel all those years ago, but chose not to, to respect Apollo’s wish to continue fighting. Rocky has great scenes throughout the movie; I would say this is Stallone’s strongest performance yet as the character. Rocky is so good in this movie, that the danger is that he could upstage Adonis. But, smartly, the director is careful to make sure that this is Creed’s movie, not Rocky’s. Rocky is there a lot, but he never upstages Adonis.

Adonis and Bianca had good chemistry in the first movie, and it’s only gotten better here. The two big plot developments are that Adonis proposes to Bianca, and they learn that a child is on the way. Boxing movies are more than just the fights; they are about the people within those fights, who they are and how they got to this point. In this regard, (and just about all other regards) Creed II triumphs. There is some interesting, tragic drama as Bianca worries that her child will be born deaf.

Let’s talk about the Dragos, perhaps the greatest aspect of Creed II. The film actually begins with Ivan and Viktor in Russia before cutting to Adonis’ fight with Danny Wheeler. Continuing with the knowledge that boxing films are more than just fights, Creed II shows the reasons why Ivan has Viktor challenge Adonis. As Ivan explains to Rocky at the restaurant (one of the best scenes in the film), after his loss at the end of Rocky IV, he lost everything, including his wife. We see later in a scene set in Russia that Viktor is being set up to bring boxing back to glory in Russia. Ivan’s wife actually shows up, but we see that she doesn’t actually care about Viktor; she just cares about the name Drago as a glorious name.

Regarding Viktor, he doesn’t talk all that much during the film, which might lead some to say he has little character. But, I believe that’s the point. This film is in many ways a mirror to Rocky IV. Ivan Drago in that film also said few lines. He had less “personality” than Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang, but that didn’t mean he had less character. Ivan in Rocky IV was displayed as an emotionless super boxer, whose only goal was to serve the Soviet Union’s cause. However, in the climax, Ivan turns to a Soviet Union leader and says, “I fight to win! For me! For me!” This was a key line showing Drago did have his own character rather than just being a machine for the Soviets.

With Viktor, we learn that he has had a tough childhood, with Ivan training him harshly. Viktor is raised with only one thing in mind: his fists. However, as the movie smartly shows, the two of them have an interesting relationship. Viktor never displays any hate or distaste for his father. In the Russia scene, we see Viktor distressed about his mother coming, telling Ivan that she is a stranger to them. Then, during the fight, when Viktor is clearly on the losing side, his mother actually walks away from the audience. This cements the fact that she doesn’t care about him. Despite that, he continues to fight. Ivan notices that his wife has left, and throws in the towel. We see briefly that Viktor is upset, with Ivan telling him that it’s okay. This shows that Viktor is a broken person, hoping to succeed in what his father trained him to do, and that his mother would come back into their lives.

ivan and viktor

Since I just mentioned it, it would be good to talk about the climax. Instead of opting for a generic knockout win, Adonis wins by the towel being thrown. This is a key thing cementing this film as the best in the series. When Ivan notices his wife has walked away, and sees his son being beaten, he makes the call that Rocky didn’t in Rocky IV. He throws in the towel, stopping the match, and consoles Viktor. It’s hard to describe just how emotionally impactful the entire sequence was. When a scene can bring a tear to your eye, it did something right. In this case, we see that Ivan does indeed love his son, and didn’t want him to die in the ring. As part of the final scenes of the movie, we see Ivan running side by side with Viktor as they train in Russia. This is a great scene because earlier we saw Ivan training Viktor using a car, a rather impersonal approach.

Finally, Rocky reunites with his son. This was a great way to bring everything full circle. The Rocky film series could continue, but if it ended with Creed II, that would be fine. Creed II is the perfect sendoff for the franchise. It continues the storylines from Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa, and Creed. Everything comes together for a satisfying final fight. The acting is great all around from everyone. Dolph Lundgren steals every scene he’s in as Ivan Drago, and of course Rocky is always great. The fights are well choreographed as always, and the soundtrack is good. In fact, the classic Rocky theme returns, and it’s placed perfectly within the story. Creed II has one of the best climaxes I’ve ever seen. Simply put, the film is fantastic. It may have a technically generic storyline, but it’s done so well that it may even exceed the original Rocky.

 

10/10