The DCEU comes roaring back to life with superheroes the way they were meant to be, and this time I think we can actually all agree on that.
Directed by James Wan
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall, Geoff Johns, and James Wan
Spoiler alert: moderate
The DCEU's had a hard time of it, both in a general sense (everyone kind of hates it, even if they like individual movies from it) and a personal one (I have not enjoyed the last three films in a franchise that, until today, was only five films long). Anyway, it's fun to have fun, as they say, and it's a relief to find that the sixth film has finally broken DC's losing streak. Above all, it's nice to find that while my appreciation for the DCEU has been heterodox—given you're looking at the biggest and perhaps only Batman v Superman fan on infinite Earths—sometimes other people actually do love what I love, even if it's slightly bemusing to me that the particular case where me and everybody else intersect is this one. Well, if we're being fair, I'm sure I still love it more.
And what I love, of course, is Aquaman. A more straightforward superhero film there could not be, though it's one that embraces the ecstatic hybrid possibilities of the genre—sci-fi, fantasy, action, adventure, romance, melodrama, comedy, dynastic war thriller, full-on Campbellian monomyth, even genuine horror; you name it, it's got it—as much (or more) than anything we've seen before. If it's a "course correction" for the DCEU, it's a good one; it balances the hyperserious tone of Zack Synder's films with the frothiness that people want, and with a humanity that might be novel to the genre (in film) altogether. It's not always perfect, but when it's perfect, it's as good as any superhero film has ever been.
Its tale centers upon Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a child of two worlds and at home in neither, an oft-repeated theme in heroic fiction, though this time it digs deeper, and means more: the son of Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis and humble lighthouse keeper Thomas (Temuera Morrison), Arthur knows that his parents loved each other until the day the sea came to reclaim its renegade daughter, whereupon it is implied unmistakably she was used to bear a pureblood heir, Orm (Patrick Wilson), right before being executed by her own father, fed to monsters of the deep. The one they call a "half-breed" has lived his life along the shore, secretly trained in the ways of his people by another Atlantean, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), until he realized that if they killed his mother just for having him, he couldn't expect to be treated much better. And so he has idled for his many years, helping the surface world when it suits him, even saving the planet once (though we'd rather not remember that, and fortunately Aquaman barely mentions it at all), until another denizen of the deep, Mera (Amber Heard), arrives to inform him that it's only a matter of days before Orm unites all the undersea realms under Atlantis' banner, and begins a war of extermination against the human race in retaliation for every depredation we've made upon the oceans they live in.
I mean, he's got a legitimate grievance, but has he considered telling us they exist?
Mera drags him back to Atlantis, which should have been their point of departure for Arthur's very own Arthurian quest—the retrieval of an ancient weapon, forged by the legendary founder of Atlantis, bearer of a power so terrible it sunk that lost continent (a backstory which Arthur remembers as "something something trident," and I think we're all with him on that)—but things go badly almost immediately. Not only is Orm onto them, crushing Arthur so thoroughly in single combat it's only a miracle he escapes Atlantis at all; to track Arthur onto dry land, Orm's sent Black Manta (partly Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, but maybe mostly a delightfully faithfully-adapted CG cartoon), a ruthless mercenary we met earlier when Arthur left his pirate father to die, and who has nursed a furious vengeance in the meantime.
It's about a lot, then, starting with an untidy dual allegory that plays heavily on race, with Atlantis made distractingly Aryan and Orm the Pure the most refractive of them all, while more lightly positing that, in the upside-down of the ocean, it's actually the fascists who want to save the whales, and in this they do have a point. Despite being untidy, this all works, tapping into universal yearnings: there is a moment where Arthur sees Atlantis, his mother's home, for the first time—a gorgeous barrage of bioluminescent lights in the darkness of the ocean—and Momoa regards it with a small, brief smile of reluctant hope that is the most heartbreaking image ever seen in a genre that usually just kills people to try to bully a reaction out of you. Momoa, the one element of Aquaman I was concerned about the most, has fixed whatever faults as an actor he's had in the past: he's given the space to move far beyond the surfer bro Aquaman we met in his previous, might-as-well-call-it-a-cameo appearance, and the traces of that characterization which remain are turned to subtly different ends; he's still quick with a dumb joke and mellow obliviousness, but they feel like a shell now—defensiveness—and this Arthur Curry is shy and wounded and unsure, his carelessness an artifact of feeling like no one has ever cared about him, so why should he care about anybody, or himself? It's a great performance, a nearly flawless one, one that trades on Momoan beefcake in shots punctuated with half-snark, half-earnest guitar riffs, and one that trades in Momoa's worst weakness, a glower that looks like he's wondering what you taste like, until the situation calls for looking like he's considering eating you. Aquaman isn't a movie about Arthur becoming a king—I mean, it is, but it's not just that, and it's important that when he does claim his throne, he knows he's worthy because he doesn't want it, and doesn't think he's good enough for it, so he'll never take that power for granted. Mostly, though, it's about a man becoming aware of vulnerabilities, his own and those of others; of being, as Aquaman baldly states, a hero, not just a king. Of all the thousand films that repackage Campbell by way of Star Wars, Aquaman is the one that understands Return of the Jedi the best, in a way that (for example) Wonder Woman, written by morons, never could.
Director and co-scenarist James Wan taps into his inner George Lucas to pull this feat off, which I mean as a compliment; he called upon his inner Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, as well. Maybe his inner Snyder, too. Yeah, I said it. Wan was another quantity I wasn't sure about: previously, his best movie had still been Saw (or, perhaps, The Conjuring 2), and the closest training he'd gotten for Aquaman was Furious 7 (which is, well, a movie). But here the results are. Now, he might not have had an inner James Cameron available for consultation: the one divisive aspect of Aquaman is its treatment of its underwater environment as water—and the fundamental thing that separates a comic book from a movie (that is, movement) was always going to pose a problem in Aquaman, when a comic could allude to the motion of swimming and the movie was going to have to somehow constantly show it. It basically cheats, and is so inconsistent and uncaring about how movement works underwater that it quickly stops registering and even more quickly stops mattering. There's a shot of some submarining B-movie or other on a TV in the very first scene (Atlanna, surprised by it, smashes the TV with her trident), and I don't know if that bit of cute was meant to say, "This is better than that," or "This is that." But I almost appreciate this about Aquaman: it leaves the solemn contemplation of the undersea realm to a man better suited for it, and leaves his undersea Avatar substantial room for improvement.
Which is not to say Wan has not made a ravishing film anyway, it's just in a different register. It has Return of the Jedi in its soul, but Flash Gordon in its heart, and it's joyous in its breathless race to show off all its many peoples of the sea, from the armored Atlanteans to the crab-men of the Brine People to worse things than crab-men. If it feels like a rushed tour through a set of dioramas spread out on a single table, that's still one of the finest things pulp fantasy can be. It's not about the journey, it's about there being so many destinations. Bill Brzeski's production design is Greek by way of modernism—a fusion of monument and technology, shown off as neon colors and Apple whiteness against swathes of black—and Wan and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams, acknowledging their debt, push the Daft Punkiness of the score to underline the underwater TRON: Legacy they've attempted to do, and mostly succeeded in making.
The film's approach to action is, naturally, fluid; though perhaps the standout, in fact, winds up on dry land. It offers a new way to integrate CGI into superhero films, which always wind up with more than one fight at a time, dispensing with cross-cutting and simply layering each running battle into different planes, a lateral pair of chase sequences with the camera gracefully moving through and around and back as its subject of interest changes, while yet another enemy in reserve tracks a third parallel line through the scene. James Wan loves Smash Bros., I think. So do I, but if Aquaman looks like a video game, and it does, a lot, it never actually feels like one. Even when Aquaman is at its most confused, it feels purposefully chaotic, and only to overwhelm you before immediately reimposing order: the finale, an epic battle beneath the waves, soon narrows from tens of thousands of participants to only two.
But what it does best is never lose the emotional thread of its story—threads, really—even when it's kind of losing any interest in its quest plot (which is efficient to the point of being a straight line, and kind of stupid on top of it), even when it's losing interest in Black Manta (he's a miniboss, at best), even when it's overexplaining itself way more than it ever needs to (with dialogues that don't even try to avoid beginning with an "as you know"), and even when it's Goddamn goofy. It's always Goddamn goofy. That's one of its greatest strengths, and it's gratifying beyond reason that Wan doesn't see any need to defend Aquaman the Concept, demeaned as it's been over the years. (Whatever Wan's credited co-scenarist and often-tedious DC comic book writer/defensive superfan Geoff Johns actually had to do with this film, it must've been pretty minimal.) No, the concept is fine. Myths are always goofy. So what if Atlanteans sometimes don't know what human food is? That's funny. It's a running gag that winds up somewhere incredibly charming and sweet: the best little thing in Aquaman is when Arthur, following the woman he's started to grow fond of, decides not to correct her, and Momoa's expression when she's not looking is nuanced and priceless.
Aquaman can be fairly accused of being high camp, but it knows it: Patrick Wilson is unimpeachable as a man who can snarl, "CALL ME OCEAN MASTER" and mean it, and if you laugh, it's out of sheer appreciation that anybody can play a megalomanical villain so straight while still winding up putting some genuine humanity, along with some yearning of his own, into his interactions with his half-brother, whom he hates more because he's the reason his mother's gone than for anything Arthur actually did himself. Heard gets to be The Girl, but one with at least an evocation of substance; it's a wonderful performance for a character that's mostly plot, breasts, cool water superpowers, and blood-red hair that was in the comics long before The Little Mermaid, everybody—like Ariel, red was chosen because water is blue, so let's not overthink it. Sure, it's fine to eat your greens like with Spider-Verse, where the hero doesn't get to kiss the girl; but Aquaman knows that's never going to be as cathartic and powerful, and Aquaman knows how to be cathartic and powerful. It ends with two scenes, quickly, respectful of its audience's indulgence of 143 surprisingly fleet minutes. These two scenes strike like irons. I said the movie's got a lot of Spielberg in it. It has even more comics: it knows how to deploy an image for maximum effect and emotional understanding, from the moment when ten year-old Arthur discovers for the first time that the fish understand him even if no one else does, to the moment a man sees a woman just standing on a dock, like a miracle. It knows how to move between them, too, with brilliant quicksilver transitions that use the sea and a swirling camera to swing through time and space. (The actual worst thing about the movie? The onscreen text that tells us where we are, when it never matters where, but what we find there. Okay, maybe it's the kid playing teenaged Arthur. Ouch.) But even the smallest characters, like Thomas and Atlanna—they mean something, to the people who love them, and each other, and there's so much to experience and feel in this movie that, of course, is just as much about the giant sea monster Karathen (Julie Andrews) as it is about anything else.