Janus Film Review Special: Aquaman (2018)

as reviewed by Dan.

Format Reviewed: Digital/Warner Bros. (2019).


If one was looking for a novel manner in which to introduce a film starring Nicole Kidman, having her hurl a gilded fork through a television screen before scoffing a goldfish straight out of its bowl, is probably a good way to start. There can be no doubting that director James Wan’s long-awaited Aquaman (2018) is a loud and proud motion picture; a mostly superior adaptation of one of DC Comics more bizarre and inaccessible superheroes. The aforementioned Kidman plays Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis. The unfortunate owner of the newly converted multi-screen television is lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry, as played with a solemn sweetness by Temuera Morrison.


They are the quintessential odd couple: a daughter of mythological royalty, and a humble and earnest man of the earth (and sea). Atlanna is fleeing an arranged marriage, and finds in Thomas a loving, albeit brief, sanctuary from her enforced responsibilities. Their union results in the birth of a son, Arthur, and upon the queen’s forced return to Atlantis, father and son must endure in silence, lest the previously jilted Atlantean King make a murderous beeline for Atlanna’s ‘half-breed’ bastard. Things are complicated by young Arthur’s transition from an impetuous boy into a positively strapping, unnaturally gifted man, with a flair for brawling, laconic asides and the delights of happy hour. Owing to his Atlantean physiology, Arthur is a metahuman - DC’s preferred euphemism for persons of extraordinary prowess - and his continued forays into vigilantism have earned him the media sobriquet ‘Aquaman’, as well as the wary attention of his Atlantean fellows.


Anticipation for Aquaman’s solo filmic adventure was high, after the character’s show-stealing performance in the ill-fated Justice League (2017). Like almost everything associated with that film, the Aquaman character was underserved by a threadbare narrative and muddled intent, but Jason Momoa - the original Khal to Daenerys Targaryen’s Khaleesi - cuts through the inferior circumstances with a winning and ultra-charismatic performance. He was a shining light amidst a very dark day, and the strength of his turn engendered enthusiasm and curiosity in abundance. Momoa is as likeable as the day is long, and having been handed the baton in his own film, he rises to the occasion with aplomb. His Aquaman is amusing, irreverent and just the right side of knowing, with healthy dollops of loyalty and sincerity further sweetening the pot. The whole premise of Aquaman is more-than-slightly ridiculous, with a heritage grounded in purest mythology. The essence of the film’s plot reads like Shakespeare filtered through the prism of the Magic Roundabout. Director Wan embraces this absurdity, and crafts a film that is wantonly melodramatic, but never likely to fold in the act of blowing its own trumpet.


Arthur is drawn into Atlantean affairs by the machinations of his half-brother, King Orm Marius, the de facto ruler of a now-divided Atlantis, as played by the underrated and appropriately aryan Patrick ‘Nite Owl’ Wilson. King Orm seeks to unite the disparate Atlantean factions and have himself declared ‘Ocean Master’ (how’s that for a portentous moniker), with the authority to initiate war against the ‘surface dwellers’. Such warmongering forces the hand of those in the king’s court still loyal to the fallen Queen Atlanna (mother of both Arthur and Orm), namely Willem Defoe’s vizier Nuidis Vulko, and Orm’s own consort, Mera. Vulko maintains a longstanding interest in the fate of Arthur, and is responsible for both his combat training and cursory understanding of Atlantean affairs. Mera is a highborn student of Atlanna, and her relationship with Orm mirrors that of Atlanna and Orm’s father: political, pragmatic and loveless (opening the door to a brotherly love triangle). Together they seek to counterbalance Orm’s ambitions with the intervention of Arthur, who is naturally uninterested and frankly, rather hostile to the idea, owing to Atlantis’ apparent predilection for ritual matricide. This wholly unoriginal premise sets the stage for a swashbuckling jaunt, that takes in the technological splendour of Atlantis, before journeying to the sands of the Sahara, the historical architecture of Sicily and back again.


Though high on exposition, Aquaman maintains a well-measured narrative pace. The colour and variety of the locations certainly help, as do the numerous exciting action sequences peppered throughout the 143 minute running time. The real key to success though, is in the interplay between the characters. During their longwinded odyssey to carve out a piece of the MCU-shaped pie, both DC and Warner Bros have followed the Marvel/Disney blueprint, and cast respected Hollywood luminaries at every turn. Where they’ve failed is in having these actors grimace rather than grin. Aquaman is a fun film. Momoa is effortless in his charm, but the performance of the hitherto emotionally vacant Amber Heard is a most pleasing surprise. She lends sass and fortitude to Mera, and taking inspiration from Gal Gadot, she is both a compelling fish out of water (if you’ll pardon the pun), and a convincing warrior, who flourishes off the back of her own bravery and ingenuity. As was the case with Wonder Woman (2017), Aquaman sees no need to gratuitously flaunt the sexuality of its heroine; trusting instead to the genuine chemistry between its two leads. Though not exactly the tantalising embodiment of insatiable sexual tension, the emotional dynamic between Arthur and Mera is suitably diverting.


For all the repeated winking at the silliness of it all, Aquaman is not without imperfections. The character remains a totally daft concept, and the saga presented here - though charming to the last - is one of the most predictable superhero stories in the history of humankind. An attempt to texturise the Aquaman persona is attempted by the incorporation of the Black Manta character, whose origins lay entirely in the hands of Arthur’s hubris. Sadly, despite a solid performance from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the character is little more than a token inclusion; a narrative placeholder, lending an edge to some of the action, and fulfilling the obligatory post-credits allusion to a possible sequel. All additional attempts at character development are accomplished by proxy. Another concern revolves around the inherent nature of Atlantis, which is, by definition, an underwater kingdom. As a consequence, it must be realised almost exclusively by CG effects work and green screen. The digital imperative results in some undeniably breathtaking sequences, but as we have already seen on multiple occasions in countless films, such a mega-budget FX orgy can sometimes ring rather hollow.


In this regard, Aquaman offers a peculiar dichotomy of the readily accessible and the oddly distant. When we see Arthur merrily boozing with his father, or galavanting across the globe with Mera, the film demonstrates a finely honed sense of humanity. Contrast this natural warmth with the ‘reality’ of Atlantis. Though impeccably presented, the gleaming construct is ultimately little more than an elaborate artifice, and the overly manufactured nature of its existence leaves one feeling a tad cold. The film uses CG (alongside body doubles) to present younger versions of Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison. This impressive technique is by now a staple of the genre, but it serves to italicise the point: Whether it be the lustrous Atlantean hair styles, or the monstrous Karathen (Atlantis’ very own leviathan), Aquaman is in constant thrall to the digital effects process. This is not necessarily a criticism, but when a film is so utterly awash with intangible characteristics, a sense of dehumanisation is perhaps inevitable.


Regardless of whatever gripes one might be tempted to make, you cannot argue with success. Aquaman is a bonafide commercial smash hit. For the longest time, it seemed as if Marvel had permanently confiscated the keys to the billion dollar kingdom, but with Jason Momoa spearheading proceedings, Aquaman boldly claimed its own nine figure prize. Ironically, this success comes at a price. Though initially charged with revitalising the DCEU, the critical and commercial achievements of the film (alongside the previously noted triumphs of Wonder Woman) have convinced Warner Bros to officially abandon their attempts at salvaging the DC Extended Universe. The focus has shifted to individual films (and characters) within the pantheon of DC heroes. Any subsequent cross-pollination will be considered purely on a case-by-case basis. The fact is, since its inception the DCEU has been totally mismanaged, so abandoning such a hefty and joyless ball and chain makes practical and creative sense. In Wonder Woman and Aquaman, a formula has been established for the creation of relevant, exciting and throughly entertaining superhero films, sans the mark of the MCU. Aquaman is a proficient and altogether rewarding film driven by its strong and enjoyable central performances. It also happens to offer - over the course of one film - the sight and sound of Dolph Lundgren, John Rhys-Davies and Julie Andrews. All of this is, in the words of the late, great Pete Postlethwaite: ‘great stuff’.

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