There was a certain chase sequence around the narrative midpoint of Aquaman in which our two heroes were fleeing a fleet of enemy ships when I realized what it was my brain was trying to tell me for the previous half hour: Aquaman was like Thor: Ragnarok, but wet… and worse. And while I’m not sure they drew the same comparison, I’ve teamed up with fellow Arts writers Zachary Lee and Jeremy Markus to discuss the DCEU’s most recent installment in our usual Q&A fashion. — Nick Smith
1. Why should you watch this movie?
Nick: If you, like me, are still planning to stick with the DCEU after giving it another (Batman v Superman), another (Suicide Squad), and another (Justice League) “last chance,” you’ve gotta see Aquaman to keep up. Rest assured though, brave moviegoer, it’s as “good” as if not better than just about all of its predecessors.
Zach: Aquaman is concerned above all else with just being fun; yes, it has an uplifting (and surprisingly timely) message about caring for the environment and, on a personal note, it is great to see an Asian director steer the ship of a big-budget superhero film, but it just tries to give audiences a good time at the movies. You have to fish hard for reasons to not enjoy yourself at this film.
Jeremy: Uh, well, it looked pretty. Also, there’s a giant f***ing crab that’s pretty dope.
2. Why should you not watch this movie?
Nick: The dialogue and story aren’t exactly great. And even though well-shot action and a pleasant splash of color somewhat make up for those faults, Aquaman’s just missing the two aspects that make its rival franchises’ films so palatable. It’s another turn off your brain movie; enter at your own risk.
Zach: While Jason Momoa and Amber Heard have their moments, it’s painfully obvious when the two are operating on different frequencies, which leads to awkward exchanges and jokes that do not stick. When you don’t know whether to laugh or roll your eyes, that’s not a good sign.
Jeremy: Aquaman is about 50% CGI, 35% expositional dialogue, 10% clichés, and 5% watchable. When my mom can predict lines before they are delivered, there’s sufficient reason to discredit the writers. If I had to guess, most of the $200 million budget went to the vibrant visuals and getting Jason Mamoa’s rockin’ bod. The rest of the film seemed like it was produced with scraps.
3. Best performance?
Nick: I have some issues with most of the leads, so I’m going with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta. His character is somewhat underserved and was surely only introduced here for a vengeful return in an inevitable sequel, but the up-and-coming actor does a lot with a little in a Killmonger-esque introduction before he dons his comically oversized helmet.
Zach: Patrick Wilson’s Ocean Master is definitely the standout. In a way, his simplistic motivations are an asset. While director James Wan tries to imbue nuance in the other leads, Wilson embodies the “jealous sibling” trope and presents it in all its dynamic facets. He delivers the most cliché lines with such class and suave, and while his singular aspirations are nothing ground-breaking, they make him refreshingly comprehensible.
Jeremy: I’ll agree with Nick on this one. I wasn’t awed by much in this movie, but I did find Abdul-Mateen’s performance worthy of recognition. Although Aquaman strayed from his character in the third act, I felt Black Manta somewhat grounded the otherwise vaporous film.
4. Most surprising/unexpected part?
Nick: The effects were actually really good! They were certainly on the level of Marvel’s most recent offerings and definitely a cut above those of Black Panther — if we’re honest with ourselves, that third act had some pretty subpar CGI (I’m looking at you rhinos). It didn’t seem like the film was hiding its effects either! Action sequences were well-lit, visually-stunning, and downright vibrant as compared to last year’s Justice League.
Zach: Atlantis is one of the best developed worlds I’ve seen in superhero film, second maybe to Black Panther’s Wakanda. Aquaman had to serve as a retcon of its titular hero’s origin, be a quasi-sequel to Justice League, introduce multiple villains, and make a superhero who has traditionally been considered a joke palatable to mainstream audiences. I would have forgiven the movie if it cast world-building to the side, but miraculously that part of the film stays afloat.
Jeremy: If nothing, I’m happy that this film didn’t have the same dark, dull color gradient of the other films in the DCEU. Other than that, everything was very, extremely, remarkably predictable.
5. How does Aquaman rank within the DC Extended Universe?
Nick: Second, which isn’t saying much — Wonder Woman is the only film in the universe I’ve sought out for repeat viewing. Aquaman won’t be joining it. (Fingers crossed for Shazam.)
Zach: This might, ahem, stir up some controversy, but personally I think this is the best DCEU film. Aquaman revels in its own insanity without trying to justify its existence or mythology. It is straightforward and tonally consistent, and it makes up for a hackneyed origin story with visuals that honor its comic book source material.
Jeremy: Oh man, I’d rank every movie in the DCEU (sans Wonder Woman) dead last. If Aquaman was truly taking itself seriously, it did an awful job. The action sequences did little to salvage this sunken wreckage of a film.
6. What is Aquaman’s significance to the DCEU?
Nick: This is the sort of movie that should’ve come out before either of the DCEU’s two mashup films. We love ragging on superhero films for cramming backstory down our throats, but I didn’t mind it as much here. This is the type of origin story that a relatively unfamiliar character deserves. Aquaman is not a Batman or Superman level character, so while Zach Snyder’s decision to show us the Waynes’ deaths again in Batman v Superman felt laborious, Wan’s choice to put first things first in the new film felt natural. Even despite my qualms with the movie’s storyline and dialogue, Aquaman got me hoping its successors will follow it down this more fleshed-out path.
Zach: Aquaman is the DCEU’s Guardians of the Galaxy; everyone doubted Marvel when they made a racoon and a tree two leads of the film but now Rocket’s and Groot’s names are just as common as Spider-Man. Guardians got a sequel and paved the way for on-screen adaptations of Marvel’s lesser-known properties, such as Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. Aquaman’s success will hopefully give Warner Bros the courage to invest in properties that they might have rejected at first due to their obscure nature. (I hear they are developing a Plastic Man movie already…)
Jeremy: The DCEU does not feel as cohesive as the MCU. I fail to see how Aquaman develops the universe beyond yet another origin story and revenue stream.
7. Aquaman is the DCEU’s sixth installment; for Marvel, that was 2012’s Avengers. How does the later-blooming universe stack up?
Nick: Not well, but I’m still holding onto a sliver of hope. DC’s current upcoming slate would suggest we’re going to get several more of these smaller, focsued, single character driven pieces before the next Justice League team up (which will likely be a rumored “Flashpoint” universe reset of sorts) and those are just what the franchise needs. Here’s to hoping they hold off on a do-over for just a bit longer.
Zach: Props should be given to DC for finally just swimming in their own lane rather than trying to copy Marvel. They’re not doing it with the same success, but they are finally embracing the craziness (and thus the loveability) of their characters. They have proven that their universe can juggle a variety of different tones and color palettes, which is more than I can say for the MCU (whose movies look more similar every year).
Jeremy: It doesn’t. Marvel’s movies are a full head, shoulders, knees and toes above DC’s.