The party line of D.C. diehards, at least until Wonder Woman’s well-received idealism, was that their films offered “dark” or “serious” stories in contrast to Marvel’s fast-talking raccoons. But that description always fell way short of capturing the fundamental experience of watching films like Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad: one of pure bafflement.
The folks at D.C.’s film factory have proved themselves, again and again, to be accidental artisans of “wait, what?” cinema. The DCU is basically the Brexit of the modern multiplex: supposedly smart, competent professionals making a series of very bad decisions in full public view. After Wonder Woman’s flirtation with thought-through storytelling, it’s weirdly reassuring to report that Aquaman lands viewers right back in HUH? territory; it’s a soupy, murky, disjointed submariner spin-off with the corniest screenplay in recent superhero memory.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), dubbed ‘the Aquaman’ by the public after helping Batman and co. defeat Steppenwolf (remember Steppenwolf?), is living metahuman life on the down low. When he’s not engaging in recreational pirate ass-whopping, and unwittingly instigated a blood feud with the bug-eyed Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), he’s downing pints with his lighthouse keeper Dad, who still pines for his estranged mermaid wife (Nicole Kidman in a porcelain shell corset).
As imagined by director James Wan and writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall and comics scribe Geoff Johns, Aquaman (dropping the ‘the’, it’s cleaner) is basically PureGym Superman + swimming. Momoa plays him as a scraggly, unbothered good-time barbarian, but he’s sucked back into Atlantis’ underwater politicking when Mera (Amber Heard in an astonishing wig) warns him that his half-brother King Orm (blonde Patrick Wilson) is planning to go war with the world above. So it’s up to Arthur to get serious and get the throne.
Super-comparisons aside, the future-glow aesthetic of the Atlantean adventure strongly recalls curious, messy sci-fis like Valerian: City of a Thousand Worlds or Jupiter Ascending, 2015’s Channing Tatum space werewolf blockbuster, both preposterous, kitschy, but potentially quite beautiful films. In between bright, zappy raygun skirmishes and ludicrously acted origin flashbacks, Aquaman’s oddities come thick and fast, like William Dafoe screaming about “surface-dwellers!”, or a middle section treasure hunt in which Arthur and Mera search for a “sacred trident”. People very seriously use phrases like “Ocean Master” or “the might of the seven seas!” like they’re doing Henry V in an aquarium.
There are moments of inspired silliness, and precisely one (count it) sequence that has an actual aesthetic point of view, but otherwise Aquaman is difficult and confounding. Apart from a trip to a Sicilian village market, in which Mera’s faith in humanity is restored by a girl giving her, totally unprompted, a copy of Pinocchio, just to set up romantic banter, the action takes place under the sea, characters bobbing in CGI water. The submerged photography gives everything a weightless, distanced feel, the actors hovering like apparitions, as if at any moment they could drift off to some other, less embarrassing, gig. By time blonde Patrick Wilson is arguing with a subtitled crab king about his “allegiance”, you’ll have given up entirely.
Coming off the giddy heels of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Aquaman feels particularly botched and undisciplined. Something like Spider-Verse really is in a whole different league. Like, 20,000 of them. Conor Smyth
Aquaman is on wide release across all seven seas.