For over seventy years Aquaman has been DC’s resident joke character. Thanks to some silly interpretations and the cheesy nature of the early comics the character, despite being one of the founding members of the Justice League and a constant in pretty much every lineup, has been seen in pop culture as “the fish dude”. This is in spite of his rich mythology and rebrand as a fighter and a warrior in the New 52. One of my primary concerns about the DCEU tackling Aquaman was built on the awkward attempts to make everything ultra serious yet still trying to make Aquaman a joke- in Justice League he made no impact as he simply stood around making jokes about how he talks to fish whilst the film tried desperately hard to make the audience take this inherently silly character seriously. It just didn’t mesh well. Jason Momoa was a good choice for the character but unless Aquaman’s world was treated with respect he simply wouldn’t translate well to the big screen. Well, the fears have been washed away (ooh, water puns, how original) by James Wan’s brilliant film that embraces the comic book campiness and adventurous tone of films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark whilst balancing it out with actual respect for the mythology and world building, creating a film that’s both immensely fun yet also being quite serious. See DC, this is what you should have been doing from the start!
It’s clear that James Wan took the source material and treated it in the same way as Kenneth Branagh did with the first Thor film- embrace the camp yes, but also treat the silliness as a given and focus on making hero cool by simply giving him a character and not just pointing out the jokes. One of the best parts of the film is how it manages to be pure fun without being silly– Atlantis is taken completely seriously and the amazing visual image of an octopus playing drums is treated as a matter of fact. What makes this approach different from the ultra-grittiness of the early DCEU films is how this is actually accurate to the comic books. It also looks like a comic book, with exaggerated colours and over the top action (which is amazing). I remember the original promo image of Aquaman with his dark and gritty look making him look so melodramatic- it’s great Warner Bros are actually sticking to the comics and actually making the character feel more real by embracing the source. Aquaman is not a dark and gritty character so don’t make him one. This is what happens when you get Geoff Johns involved. Turns out getting someone who writes the comics knows what he is doing, surprising no one who actually read comics.
The film is long but is never dull thanks to the ever changing narrative and the set piece based plot. King Orm of Atlantis wishes to wage war on the surface world, and his brother, the half human-half Atlantean Arthur Curry, must claim his rightful place on the throne to stop him. To do this, he needs to find the trident of King Atlan with the help of fellow royal Mera. It’s a simple plot that works wonderfully as an origin film, although I can’t remember how Justice League fits into the continuity (although let’s be honest, who cares?) The quest to find the trident leads the heroes from Atlantis to the Trench, from the Sahara to Sicily and more. The film’s dramatic narrative concerns Arthur finding his place and feeling isolated from both Atlantis and Earth, and whilst his journey may be a simple hero’s journey narrative it’s amazing how a simple character arc does so much for allowing me to relate to this take on Aquaman. Had this film come out before Justice League (which it should have done) I don’t think I would have had such a problem with Aquaman in that film. It helps that Jason Momoa is skilful at both humour and drama, with a great screen presence that makes the lead role come alive. And yes, he looks far better in the classic orange and green suit than the drabness he wore in his last appearance.
Much like Wonder Woman (amazing, the two best DCEU films are both complete standalone. Maybe this is a sign that taking things slowly one character at a time is the best approach, which of course Warner Bros are going to ignore) the production values and worldbuilding is simply wonderful. Atlantis is like an underwater version of Blade Runner and for such a huge film backstory wise (seven kingdoms, thousands of years of history and all the characters) the film does an excellent job condensing all the backstory and weaving it into the main narrative. The sprawling nature of the film means one key character in Aquaman mythos gets a bit sidelined, but more on him later. It’s such a richly layered and detailed film with a focus on making these absurd characters feel alive, and each one does. In terms of sheer entertainment this is easily the best DCEU film yet- yes, I enjoyed Suicide Squad immensely but that film is a structural and character disaster compared to Aquaman. Each time the film shows something cool it manages to top it almost immediately- I don’t want to give everything away but the final battle is so ridiculously over the top and crazy it manages to make “Thor arrives with Rocket and Groot in the middle of the Battle of Wakanda” feel mundane. But nothing, nothing, I saw in a cinema this year is as brilliantly entertaining as the fight scene in Sicily which sees Aquaman and Mera battle Atlantean soldiers led by Black Manta. This sequence… is perfect. It’s like Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene, Spider-Man 2’s train fight, The Winter Soldier’s highway brawl or Civil War’s airport battle- you get the sense the whole film is building to this moment. The fight is expertly shot and perfectly paced and simply keeps going and going whilst making sure you never want it to end. It’s a comic book come to life. This is what DC is. Not cynical and illogical, but fun and captivating. When I assemble my list of best comic book movie fight scenes, the Sicily fight will be high on the list.
Speaking of Black Manta, as Aquaman’s arch enemy I was surprised he was featuring alongside Orm as they are the two biggest Aquaman villains. As Orm is the main villain it leaves Black Manta feeling a bit under-cooked and underdeveloped. He’s set up brilliantly and has personal stakes in the conflict and I’m amazed how well the costume translates to live action but he completely disappears after the Sicily battle and isn’t even mentioned by anyone else afterwards. It’s a bit of a shame and I feel like his story should have been saved for the sequel whilst the secondary villain should have been King Shark (seriously, why does Warner Bros hate King Shark? He’s not in Suicide Squad and is not in Aquaman. It’s clearly an anti-shark agenda). Despite this, Black Manta still has a great presence and I look forward to seeing him in future films. Orm is very well established and a brilliant villain- you get the sense that he does have a point but his methods are wrong. He’s very similar to Killmonger from Black Panter and whilst I think Killmonger was more complex (unlike Black Panther, Aquaman doesn’t really delve into the political aspects of the plot, namely pollution, as much) Orm was still a satisfyingly strong threat and the first really good villain of the DCEU. Zod was too one dimensional, “Lex Luthor” was a disaster, Enchantress was bland and the wrong threat (can we please get Guillermo del Toro’s Justice League Dark, where Enchantress makes sense as the villain?), Ares worked metaphorically but lost his presence in the final battle and Steppenwolf- HA. I’ve probably spelt his name wrong but he’s so bland I doubt people will care. And the less said about Jared Leto’s Joker the better. Hamill, Ledger and Nicholson he is not. DC has some of the finest villains in fiction and Orm’s excellent portrayal bodes well for future films.
In conclusion, whilst Wonder Woman is objectively speaking probably the best DCEU film as it’s thematically rich and thought provoking, Aquaman is my favourite. By embracing the campy nature of the comics and treating the world of Arthur Curry with respect James Wan creates a highly entertaining film that anybody can enjoy. If this is the new face of the DCEU then I’m all for it. I’ve always enjoyed DC characters more ultimately and if the King of Atlantis can get his due then I only wish that the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight can follow suit, although losing your actors isn’t helping. It’s clear from the box office and the reactions from the general audience that Aquaman is a hit, and my screening actually applauded at the end- in Britain– where the loudest noise you get is the popcorn. My cinema was silent during The Force Awakens, Infinity War and The Deathly Hallows, but it’s Aquaman where I finally got the reaction I wanted to be a part of for ages. If that doesn’t say anything about the entertainment factor and quality of this film, I don’t know what is. Go see Aquaman. It’s one of the best cinematic outings for DC.