Published Dec 11, 2018There has already been a superhero film this year that finds a half-blood member of a hidden, technologically advanced nation fighting his full-blooded, heir-to-the-throne brother over differing approaches to reconciling with the world at large, but, in what has become par for the course for DC Comics' film adaptations, here is Aquaman anyway.
Mere months after Black Panther dominated the box office, becoming the second-highest grossing film of 2018, Aquaman is bottom-feeding with its similar central conflict, hoping to nab some of the attention. It's a combination of the cyclical nature of comic books, the never-ending deluge of superhero films, DC's transparent attempt to rip off a chunk of Marvel's cash cow and just straight-up bad timing, but Aquaman fails to establish its own identity among the crowded market, and the plot is the first of the problems.
There are, of course, differences between Aquaman and Black Panther, mainly in that our hero here is the insurgent half-blood instead of the heir to the throne, but instead of getting Killmonger: The Movie, we instead have Jason Momoa as a surly wisecracker with no real investment in the action. (Another thing lacking, of course, is Black Panther's powerful exploration of African and African-American socio-racial dynamics, replaced here by a weakly delivered environmental message.)
Momoa's Aquaman is devoid of charisma and charm, just rippling muscles and mumbly quips — hardly a hero to buoy the film. Amber Heard gets several badass moments as Mera, Aquaman's partner-in-crime, but is often treated as little more than a prize to be won by the men in her life, a fate that also befalls Nicole Kidman — glorious in her too-little screen time — as Atlanna. The film's villains are given similarly weak characterization: Patrick Wilson as "heir to the throne" Orm, Aquaman's adversarial half-brother, comes off more as an entitled prat than actually villainous, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's Black Manta gets washed away by the central brotherly conflict.
Even outside of the inevitable Black Panther comparisons, Aquaman fails to stand on its own. The vivid underwater paradise of Atlantis is muddied by pointless vocal filtering and gratuitous CGI fish whizzing by in the background (we get it, they're underwater), and the flash and dazzle overcompensates for a threadbare plot and nonexistent characterization. While few people who aren't named "James Cameron" are clamouring for the upcoming Avatar sequels, its breakthroughs in underwater filming technology will surely upstage Aquaman's lacklustre, CGI-addled achievements.
With the exception of Wonder Woman, the DC Comics films are largely known for their dark-hued bleakness, an attempt to capture the magic of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, which director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) wisely sidesteps. Instead, he aims for Marvel's boilerplate "vivid colours, zooming action sequences and snappy dialogue" style, which only serves to sink Aquaman's chances at establishing its own identity. (As Aquaman's many detractors have known for decades, "water" and "talks to fish" aren't enough.)
In this oversaturated marketplace for big-budget superhero films, there needs to be some edge to stand above the fray. Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, Aquaman fails to deliver on any level, and is best left resting on the ocean floor.