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Josh Has Seen a SNEAK PEEK of AQUAMAN!

December 17th, 2018
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Over the weekend I had a chance to see a SNEAK PEEK of the latest big new DC Universe movie: Aquaman!

While rumor has it that Warner Brothers won’t be continuing with this current iteration of the interconnected DC movie universe following the less-than-stellar reception of Justice League, they did move forward on Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa, who played the character in Justice League.  I have not been impressed with the last few years worth of DC movies.  Other than Wonder Woman (which was terrific), these films since Man of Steel, which have attempted to copy Marvel Studio’s enormously successful model of an interconnected universe, have been mediocre at best and more-often-than-not atrocious (cough Suicide Squad cough).  But I’ve been impressed by the trailers for Aquaman — they looked fun and excitingly large in scale — and the early word was positive.  So what did I think?

I really really wanted to love this movie, I went in with an open heart and an open mind.  But OY!  Aquaman is another big swing and a miss for DC/Warner Brothers.

To continue with my baseball analogy, the film represents a big swing at the plate for DC/Warners.  The scale of this movie is ENORMOUS.  Aquaman is a character who has often been treated as a joke, but DC/Warners threw everything they had at this film.  I respect the film’s ambition.  This is a BIG BUDGET movie and they clearly spared no expense in bringing this project to life.

The best thing I can say is that the film looks gorgeous.  I love the design and look of the many, many underwater settings and species.  I loved the look of all the many different types of Atlantean armor, from the royal garb of King Orm to the mostly white armor of the Atlantean shock troops, to the red armor of the squad of commandos sent after Aquaman and Mera late in the film.  I loved all the underwater ships, from Mera’s sleek cruiser to King Orm’s enormous palace-ship.  I adored the look of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis itself, a futuristic city-scape that was a riot of color.  I loved all of the crazy sea-creatures, from the large sea-fish-like creatures we see soldiers riding into battle (and that Aquaman commandeers at one point, in a nice nod to his silly depiction on the Super Friends cartoon) to the humongous guardian of the Trident macguffin later on in the film.  I’m not sure I understand why the Atlanteans mutated into different species after Atlantis fell into the sea, but I liked the look of the different underwater tribes/creatures.  The film’s climax gives us some crazy-huge underwater battles between all sorts of different creatures and tech, and that was a visual feast for the eyes.  All of this underwater stuff was fantastic, beautiful to look at.  The film has an epic scale — it takes place all over the world.  This is a big canvas for this story, and visually it is all brought to life in an impressive way.  Major kudos to the film’s production designer Bill Brzeski, costume designer Kym Barrett, and everyone else responsible for the creation of the film’s sets, props, and special and visual effects.

It’s a shame all this effort wasn’t put towards a movie that worked in any way beyond the visual.

Because otherwise, the film is an absolute mess.  The characters are laughably thin, and the story makes little to no sense.

I’m honestly not sure where to begin.  Let’s start with some basic story problems/questions.

Why do Arthur and Mera seem to have super-powers that no other Atlanteans have?  Arthur can talk to fish and Mera can manipulate water to do all sorts of crazy things.  But no other Atlanteans seem to have these abilities, so why them?  This feels like a MAJOR aspect of the story that is left entirely unexplained.

After Arthur (Aquaman)’s mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) leaves her husband –Arthur’s father — and returns to the sea, exactly what connection to Atlantis does Arthur have between then and the events of the film?  The story is structured, for the most part, as I’d expect — that Arthur doesn’t really have any contact with or knowledge of the Atlantean side of his heritage, and that this film is his introduction to that side of himself.  But there are also a series of flashbacks, throughout the film, of young Arthur’s being trained in Atlantean combat by then king’s vizier, Vulko (Willem Dafoe).  Huh?  When/how/why did Vulko learn of Arthur?  Did Arthur’s human father know about this?  Why did Vulko start training young Arthur, and when/why did he stop?  The film doesn’t bother to answer those questions.  The flashbacks bring unnecessary complications and questions to what should be a simple through-line of Arthur’s having grown up as an outcast.  It seems to me that these flashbacks are only in the film to explain how Arthur could hold his own when drawn into single combat with King Orm, but surely they could have figured out a way around that.

Speaking of questions about the backstory of Arthur’s involvement with Atlantis, or lack thereof, let’s talk about Mera.  In Mera’s first scene in the movie, she appears to pick up what seems to be an old argument with Arthur, in which she asks him to come to Atlantis and pick up his claim to the throne, and he says he wants nothing to do with being king.  Then, five minutes later, after Mera helps save Arthur’s dad from a tidal wave, Arthur asks her her name, and she introduces herself.  Huh?  They didn’t already know one another?  That first scene made it seem to me like they had a long prior relationship, and they had a SCENE together back in Justice League!!  

(Don’t even get me started on this movie’s lack of continuity with Justice League.  In that film, Arthur seemed to know Mera and have no problem with swimming down to Atlantis (which he does, in search of the Mother Box the Atlanteans were protecting).  He also sported Atlantean armor that, from the events of this film, it’s hard to see how he would have had.  It sort of feels like there was one version of this story in which Arthur DID have knowledge of Atlantis — maybe he’d gone there as a young man, and eventually been rejected or cast out — but that mostly, but not totally, got written out of the current version of Aquaman.)

Why did Orm send a huge tidal wave to devastate the coasts of the surface world, days (weeks?) before he was prepared to actually attack them, before he had even assembled his army?

If Orm knew of Vulko’s treachery all along, why did he wait until the end of the film to have him removed?

Does any main character noticeably grow or change over the course of the film?  I get the sense that the story is supposed to be about Arthur’s embracing of the Atlantean side of his heritage, and accepting the responsibility of being heir to the throne.  But Arthur doesn’t really change at all!  He’s a sarcastic tough guy at the start of the film, and he ends the film exactly the same way.  There’s one scene that gives lip service to his regretting how he basically murdered the terrorist father of terrorist Black Manta at the start of the film, but it seems that he only regrets that because Black Manta comes back to cause him all sorts of trouble.  I don’t see Aquaman’s making any great effort to spare the lives of his enemies in the big action climax at the end of the film.  Meanwhile, there’s a tender scene on a boat late in the film in which Mera says something to the effect of “oh, now I understand why you [Arthur] would make a great king.”  So it seems like her arc was supposed to be growing to respect and care for Arthur.  But her VERY FIRST SCENE in the movie was telling Arthur she thought he should be king!!  It’s like the film is pretending she went on some kind of journey to that realization, prompted by her adventures on the run with Arthur.  But actually that’s where her character was right at the very beginning — so there was no change or development at all.

The whole maguffin of the first Atlantean king’s golden trident was silly and nonsensical.  First off, how was that king the FIRST Atlantean king??  He was the king when Atlantis sank, which suggests to me that the kingdom had been around for quite a while before that happened.  Second, the film tells us he was protecting his trident so only the one true king of Atlantis could claim it.  But why would he have to go to such great lengths to hide his trident for a future king to find, many centuries later?  Why couldn’t someone else have inherited the trident and the throne right away?  (And by the way, why does it have to be a male KING?  It’s insulting that the heroic queen Atlanna couldn’t claim the trident despite twenty years of trying.)  And someone tell me again how the first king of Atlantis’ kingdom was somehow buried beneath the Sahara desert?  And why would he leave some of his Da Vinci Code-style clues in an old Roman statue in Sicily??

These sorts of questions and story problems constantly threw me out of the film, forcing me to ask fundamental questions about why the things on-screen were happening the way they were and why characters were doing the things they were doing.

The film’s soundtrack choices were consistently annoying.  The “hip” song cues felt painfully forced to me.  Even worse were the times the film’s soundtrack would use “comedic” music to point out to us that the things we were seeing on-screen were supposed to be funny.  UGH.  (The most egregious example of this was when Arthur and Mera were walking along dunes in the Sahara and “bantering”.)  It’s 2018, we don’t need this sort of condescending music cues in our superhero movies, thank you very much.

(I also quickly tired of the film’s tendency to cut to a reaction shot of an animal looking bemused when a human character did something “funny.”  UGH.)

Time and again the film found ways to prevent me from investing emotionally in the story being told.  Here’s a great example: late in the third act, when Orm was massing his might to attack the surface world and Aquaman and Mera seemed trapped far away with Atlanna, the film threatened to be building some actual story momentum.  I expected that the story would climax with Orm’s launching his attack on the surface — as he’d been threatening to do since the beginning of the movie, and as it seemed he’d actually started to do when he sent that huge tidal wave to wreak devastation, two long hours of the movie earlier.  But that attack on the surface world never actually comes!  The big action-spectacle at the end isn’t Orm’s using his giant army to attack our society on the surface, and Aquaman’s trying to protect us.  Instead, the big action climax is Orm’s attack on another Atlantean Kingdom of crab-creatures (whose army, the film tells us, Orm needed in order to become the “Ocean Master” and THEN be able to attack the surface).  This underwater creature battle was filled with gorgeous, inventive imagery that was nice to look at.  But since we didn’t know those crab-creatures at all, there was zero emotional connection to this sequence.  I was shocked the film didn’t put our human surface world in jeopardy at the end — that might have grabbed the audience’s attention as we rooted for Aquaman to arrive in time.

Other thoughts:

* I was surprised that the film decided to give Aquaman a green-and-gold suit late in the film, modeled after his classic costume.  I was even more surprised, though pleasantly so, how great that costume looked!  The Marvel movies have shown us that you can make superhero costumes look awesome on film and still keep them faithful to their classic looks from the comics.  In Batman v. Superman and Justice League, Zach Snyder chose to try to change up the Justice League costumes to make them more modern and “cool.”  I was pleased to see this more faithful take on Aquaman’s look be executed so well here.

* Black Manta had a great look — impressively realizing this (in my opinion) silly-looking character from the comics books.  But that’s about all good I can say about the character.  I liked the effort the film put into explaining the silly aspects of this character, from why he has such a hilariously enormous helmet to why he calls himself Black Manta, but it all felt a bit forced to me.  More problematically, this character was an example of the problem I see too frequently in this sort of film (most famously with Whiplash in Iron Man 2), in which the hero defeats the villain early in the first act, and then the whole rest of the film is designed to try to convince us that, no, really, this villain is a threat to the hero… until they come into conflict again in the third act and the hero again beats the villain without too much trouble.  I liked this actor (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but this character didn’t have much threat or danger.  (And was pairing Black Manta up with the usually-comedic Randall Park in the film’s unsatisfying mid-credits scene designed to make us take this character MORE seriously?  If so, they did not succeed…)

* I enjoyed Temuera Morrison’s work as Arthur’s father.  (Mr. Morrison played Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones, a much-hyped character who didn’t actually amount to much.  It was nice to see his skills as an actor here, holding his own with Nicole Kidman.)

* In fact, the whole cast was very strong.  I wish these great actors had been better utilized.  Jason Momoa first impressed as Khal Drogo on the first season of Game of Thrones, and I enjoyed his work as Aquaman in Justice League.  He’s solid here too.  He certainly has an incredible physical presence.  I like the toughness and attitude he brings to the character, as well as his sweetness.  He’s able to carry himself as the lead of this solo film, but sadly the script didn’t give Mr. Momoa much of an actual character to play.  Amber Heard plays Mera, and she also certainly has the physical presence to play this classic comic book character.  She makes a nice match with Mr. Momoa.  Many of Ms. Heard’s roles have gotten more notice for her nudity than her acting (such as The Informers), but I’ve seen her deliver great on-screen performances (such as in 2011’s The Rum Diary).  Like Mr. Momoa, though, she isn’t given much of a character to play here.  I loved seeing Nicole Kidman in a superhero movie, and she was well-cast as Janet van Dyne, um, I mean Queen Atlanna.  (Ms. Kidman’s character’s story in the later parts of the film is extremely, how shall I put this, reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer’s work as Janet van Dyne in Ant Man and the Wasp.  In both cases, I wish the film chose to actually explore the effects that two decades in isolation might have had on these heroic women, as opposed to having them both reappear with a smile and no apparent physical or psychological damage.)  It was also a pleasure to see the great Willem Dafoe back in a superhero movie (after so memorably portraying The Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s wonderful first Spider-Man film).  I just wish (are you detecting a trend here?) that he had any sort of character to play.  His Vizier Vulko is almost completely passive in the film, and doesn’t really affect the plot in any way.  Sigh.  Patrick Wilson is only given one note to play as King Orm — and that note is smarmy and arrogant — but Mr. Wilson is pretty perfect at playing that note, and he’s fun to watch.  (I love that the film gave Orm his classic crazy-looking helmet from the comic books in Orm’s final fight with Aquaman.)

Look, the filmmakers had the right idea regarding how to make an Aquaman film.  They assembled a great cast, and they tried to give us an Aquaman who could be funny and modern, rather than the silly/stodgy Super Friends version of this character.  I love the idea of turning Aquaman into an undersea epic, with rival kingdoms and all the sort of fun political-plots and action-sequences that sort of storytelling can entail.

But none of that winds up being worth everything if the story doesn’t make sense, and if you don’t care about any of the characters.  Ultimately, this movie was pretty to look at but rather dumb.  Sort of like its main character.

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