Almost a decade ago, James Cameron wowed audiences through his sleeper hit Avatar. With its vividly imaginative depiction of Pandora, visuals loaded with then path-breaking CGI and a human story with political undertones unfolding underneath, the movie introduced audiences to mainstream 3D and went on to become the highest grossing Hollywood movie of all time, unbeaten to date. DC’s Aquaman is strongly reminiscent of the rich world-building and spectacle seen in Avatar, and offers something new in a genre already saturated with too many offerings.
Director James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious, Furious 7) adapts the story of Arthur Curry and embellishes it with a fairy-tale like touch, beginning the fable with an extended dreamy prologue. Like a mermaid, Nicole Kidman’s Queen Atlanna lands on the shores of lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (who hopefully won’t lead to another Martha moment with Bruce). To no one’s surprise, the two fall in love and harbor a son, Arthur with an inherent ability to talk to fish, making him the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis. Of course some evil Atlantean henchmen, modeled after the stormtroopers in Star Wars are out to get Atlanna who delivers a kick-ass beating to them before she leaves her hubby and son behind for their own safety.
As Arthur develops his abilities under the tutelage of Vulko (played with supreme deft by Willem Dafoe), Atlanna is forced into a marriage with king Orvax and bears him a son, Arthur’s half-brother Orm. In the absence of a successor, Orm takes the throne for himself and is intent upon waging war on the surface world for polluting the seas and transcending himself into the role of Ocean Master, giving him command of the seven seas. Naturally Arthur is the only one capable enough of stopping him and princess Mera (Amber Heard) helps him realize his strengths, retrieve the golden trident and become the hero he was meant to be: Aquaman.
If that description sounds too corny or cringy, that’s because it is. By telling a classic origin story of its amphibian superhero, Wan isn’t trying to break any storytelling moulds. Instead, the idea is to stick to the comic’s roots, wholeheartedly embrace its silliest aspects and play it safe as far as narrative goes, rather than reinvent the wheel or deconstruct the titular hero as Snyder attempted with Batman v Superman. The end result is that in terms of plot developments, the movie feels vastly familiar to superhero outings you’ve seen in the past. Forced romances bloom at just the right moments, characters blossom and realize their inner strengths, and the lead superpowered being is forced to shoulder a responsibility he’s not ready for, only for a plot device from his past to come to his rescue and aid his transformation into the rightful ruler of the Seven (non-Westerosi) Kingdoms.
Where Aquaman excels in is the enormous world-building at play. With a story by Will Beall and Geoff Johns at the helm, Wan imagines a universe that’s insanely rich in mythology, packed in spectacle, oozing with imagination and bursting with creativity at its seams. There’s a glimmer of the seven kings and kingdoms (among which are the Trenches, the Fishermen, the Brines, the Xebels and the Deserters), the conflicts of the past that have shaped the history of Atlantis for centuries and the city of Atlantis itself, replete with underwater neon-tinted visuals, a gigantic bridge for safe passing through its gates, its own security protocols and creatures. And boy there are quite a lot of them, from octopusses and sharks to sea-horses and a kraken. I definitely need an Aquaman guide or art-book to admire and appreciate their painstaking concept designs in detail and leisure.
Wan builds the world through intense use of CGI which is one of the selling points of Aquaman, given how integral it is to the movie. And while the trailers had me concerned about many shots failing the uncanny valley and looking far too artificial, the theatrical viewing alleviated my fears as there’s little that stands out as unreal. There’s also a fairly large number of sequences formatted for IMAX that take up most of the screen, presumably done in post-production using IMAX’s DMR technology. Underwater effects are anyway a tough task from a VFX perspective and with Wan already stressed out about their timely completion, it’s no wonder that half a dozen of the most popular firms from Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Digital to Moving Pictures Company and Digital Domain were hired to get Aquaman ready for release. Given the amount of effects shots involved, I’m scratching my heads as to how exactly Warner Bros. managed to keep the budget at $200 million.
There’s a lot of similarities between Aquaman and some other superhero fare of the last decade. Atlanta evokes Asgard and Aquaman‘s fish-out-of-water trope reminds us of Thor as he found himself when banished to earth. There’s also some heavy similarities with Black Panther; both movies see a rightful king wanting to claim the throne of their respective nations, only to be cast out in combat by a challenger, a half-brotherly figure. In both cases, the rightful heir returns, strong and reinvigorated and regains the throne back, making peace with their nemesis. And besides featuring antagonists motivated by scenarios straight out of real-world concerns, both movies feature rich new worlds in Atlantis and Wakanda respectively, educating the audience in their respective customs, visuals and landscapes.
The similarities notwithstanding, Wan’s movie is also vastly different and stands out from the aforementioned Marvel films in more ways than one. The visuals and scale are obviously one thing, but Wan’s directorial style too sets it apart. Frequently, Wan uses sweeping camera shots, often quick zooming in on his subjects and directs the action sequences using long elaborate takes to string moves that look straight out of Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series of games. The women get the best of those scenes; Atlanna’s opening fight with the sea-warriors and Mera’s chase from Black Manta’s goons are the highlights, with Arthur and Orm’s fight sequence also being a standout.
Speaking of Black Manta, his character is a delightful distraction that, despite fuelling the central conflict, doesn’t really add anything significant to the story late on. It is still immensely fun to engage in nonetheless. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II brings out the best bits in his performance, and crackles up the screen every time he shows up, ensuring the side-story remains an engaging diversion. David Kane’s introduction and transformation into his iconic comic villain is enjoyable to witness, even though it’s devoid and stripped off of deeper developments that would’ve given viewers some insight into where he comes from. In fact, that’s one of the major gripes I have with this movie; aside from Arthur, and maybe Orm, not everyone gets a character arc they carry from point A to point B and act as pawns that only serve to advance the story to where it needs to go.
The lack of development doesn’t really translate to poor performances, though it also doesn’t make them superbly competent. Momoa is quite comfortable as the half-bred Aquaman, with the struggle of torn between two worlds being something he can personally identify with. He channels that into his performance and despite ocassionally goofing around with the role, provides a satisfying completion to his journey. Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman are competent as their respective characters, both emotionally and physically. Wan gives the women some streneous movies to pull off and while they’re undeniably aided by body-doubles and visual effects, one cannot deny the intense physical effort that went into the almost half a year’s worth of shooting sequences suspended in wires. Patrick Wilson infuses some humanity into Orm, being given a strong viewpoint much like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger and makes for a compelling foe to Aquaman, albeit loses his steam as the movie nears his end. And it’s great to see Willem Dafoe in a positive role for a change, being so well-ingrained in the public eye in his dual Osborn / Goblin role from Raimi’s Spider-Man films
Aquaman is a film that’s rich in world-building and visual spectacle. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, it throws another extravagant sequence at you that leaves you gasping in awe. Whether it’s the Atlantean vistas, the highly kinetic chases and dynamic fight sequences or a climactic battle on the scale of The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, Aquaman continues to pound your senses in a good way until you simply surrender to its magnificence. And yet, beneath the surface, there’s a simple story of a man journeying his way into becoming a king, even though it’s told by employing some cheesy antics, cliched storytelling tropes and whistle-inducing heroic entries and poses that, while undeniably cool to watch, suck out the rawness and stand out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, unlike Justice League, there’s no mandate to cut down on the movie’s run time and Wan really gets to make the movie he wants at his own terms and length. Neither is it bogged down by unnecessary setup, only mentioning Steppenwolf once to connect it to the larger DCEU.
The spectacle of the seas, the effort of getting us an underwater fantasy film and the attempt at finally making a polished movie about the lesser known Aquaman all combined, compell me to give this a solid recommend, perhaps even somewhat more than what it’s actually deserving. Aquaman is a movie best experienced on the big screen, even better experienced in IMAX (something which I can personally vouch for, having gotten a chance to see it in that format by virtue of its early release in India). Understand what it is and set your expectations right about it. Then go see it, and have loads of fun.