Let’s be honest—Aquaman’s just not the kind of superhero people generally make movies about. I grew up watching the original Super Friends cartoons, and all I really remember about him is that he could breathe under water and talk to fish with his mind. And his outfit was kind of dorky. That’s about it. Not exactly the stuff of legend.
But then Jason Momoa showed up in last year’s Justice League film, and we quickly noticed that Aquaman had gotten a much-needed makeover. So when we found out that this new-and-improved character would be getting his own feature film, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Granted, even though DC Comics has had a pretty dismal track record with its Justice League movies over the last couple of years (I’m still not over the whole Batman v. Superman fiasco), this one presented an opportunity for the franchise to get a much-needed win. Would they be able to pull it off? I wasn’t expecting miracles, but I was hoping for at least an improvement in cinematic quality.
We were about 20 minutes into the film when my wife leaned over and whispered, “This is awful.” And while I wouldn’t quite go that far, I have to admit that, while the film had its moments, it just wasn’t that great. And I really think it could have been. But the movie itself seems to be having the same type of identity crisis as its titular character.
Without giving too much away (and I don’t think this really qualifies as a spoiler if you’ve seen or read much at all about the film), Aquaman has to decide whether to embrace his Atlantean side and save the world or just remain a surface dweller and let everyone else fight it out. You can probably guess how that goes, but the point is that the character ultimately has to decide who he wants (or needs) to be. Or, more accurately, Aquaman has to come to terms with who he really is.
Director James Wan and his writing team had to ask themselves a similar question: what kind of film are we making here? Maybe it’s a comedy? On the one hand, there are some truly funny moments. In addition to his rugged good looks, Momoa seems very likeable and charming, and his personality shines through as he gives us a version of Aquaman that’s powerful and heroic, but one that’s also not too bright and who doesn’t take himself all that seriously.
Except when he does. In addition to the fun, goofy Aquaman, there are also times when we see a gruff, angsty Aquaman who has the fate of two worlds resting on his shoulders and isn’t quite sure how to handle it. Unfortunately, that’s the general mood of everyone else in the entire film. There are way too many scenes full of cheesy dialogue delivered in an overly dramatic way. Throw in an overbearing, pretentious musical score, and you’ve got a film that has a very heavy feel overall.
But it didn’t have to be that way. For what it’s worth (which isn’t much), I almost wish they’d just decided to do a full-blown comedy. It could have still been an action-heavy comedy, but I think the final product would have been better. Or, they could have just made a better action drama with a few well-placed moments of comic relief. Either would have been better than what we ended up with.
Two other negatives worth mentioning:
First, the CGI is truly horrible in places. There are scenes where it feels like you’re watching someone playing a video game, which is fine if that’s what you actually intended to do. But I didn’t pay eleven bucks to watch some kid play Call of Duty. Plus, some of the action sequences are so convoluted that it’s hard to figure out what’s actually going on.
Also, I was really glad to hear someone leaving the theater behind me complaining about the dialogue being hard to understand in places, because I was thinking the same thing. Granted, a lot of the action does take place under water, and the filmmakers want to be as authentic as possible. But they could have handled that a little better.
Finally, what is it with DC Comics movies and the total destruction of entire communities? First we had to watch Superman and General Zod wipe out Metropolis AND Smallville in Man of Steel, and now we get to see a good portion of an Italian village turned into a war zone. Hey, superheroes and supervillains: do you know how easy it would be to take your fight somewhere that’s not inhabited—like space, or the ocean, or even the desert? Very. It would be very easy. Stop tearing up other people’s homes.
Overall, I like this version of Aquaman a lot better than the one I grew up with. And, all in all, this wasn’t a terrible film. I just think it could have been a lot better.