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Review: Aquaman blows almost every other DC movie out of the water

Director: James Wan
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beal. With story credits to Geoff Johns, James Wan, and Will Beal.
Starring: Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Willson, Yahya Abdul-Maleen II, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Dolph Lundgren

Runtime: 2 hours and 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language)
Release Date: Friday, December 21st, 2018

Whether you like or hate the DC movies post-Nolan Batman trilogy, it’s safe to say they’ve been fairly controversial. Man of Steel rebooted Superman in a way that some were uncomfortable with, Batman v Superman took that several steps further, and Suicide Squad and Justice League are borderline universal abominations.
Wonder Woman was a beacon of light in an otherwise murky franchise but as noted, Justice League quickly came in and brushed that moment of glory under the rug. Now, after months of rumors about a restructuring of DC involving actors leaving, movies being canned, we have Aquaman. A movie many people likely never expected to actually happen simply because it’s a character publicly ridiculed for decades and is really hard to put on the silver screen.
But by god, they pulled it off in a way I could have never anticipated. Acclaimed small-budget horror director James Wan of Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring fame takes the reigns of DC’s franchise to do the unthinkable. Following the events of Justice League, Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa) attempts to keep the seas safe for mortals but is called to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis by Princess Mera (Amber Heard). Curry’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Willson), is making an effort to unite the submerged kingdoms to declare war against the surface due to the humans’ destructive nature.


After centuries of polluting the seas, hunting and harming sea creatures, and more, Orm finally decides to take action. In an effort to keep his own people safe, Curry reluctantly goes home to Atlantis to challenge his brother for the throne of Atlantis and maintain peace between the surface and the underworld.
Aquaman’s story is a tale we’ve seen countless times in various different ways, we even saw it earlier this year with Black Panther, but the execution of James Wan’s vision is what allows it to stand out. He creates an ensemble of characters that feel fully realized, all with individual motivations, arcs, and personalities while simultaneously engulfing them in a captivating world filled with wonder.

I went into this movie with fairly reserved expectations but was genuinely blown away by how much I enjoyed it. The story never flounders or lost momentum at any point, it keeps a consistent pace from start to finish despite clocking in at nearly two and a half hours.


As we’re strung along this globetrotting journey which takes us from the east coast of the United States to under the sea to Italy and more, we’re treated to wonderful character interactions. We have the introduction of iconic Aquaman baddie Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who isn’t really the main villain of this movie but is still an absolute standout and formidable foe.

Early in the film, Manta shows up on a submarine with his pirate crew and father for nefarious purposes. Aquaman interrupts their hijinks but things go awry and the two quickly become lifelong enemies. In a film that already has quite a bit going on, Manta’s whole subplot feels really well-balanced and is carefully knitted into the main story in a very cohesive and clever way to make it feel purposeful.
All this blends together to create some really kick-ass fight scenes that leave an impact. Should Aquaman perform well at the box-office, I hope we see more of Black Manta in a sequel or future DC projects.


On the lighter side, Mera goes to collect Arthur she really wants nothing to do with him and is only there because she has no real choice. As the film goes on, their relationship naturally evolves into something beautiful as opposed to a generic, forced love story.
With superhero films, it’s typically commonplace to have the male hero and a cute girl for him to ogle over and eventually have to save. While Aquaman strives to keep her safe from Orm’s army, she is wildly capable and even shows Arthur up a few times with both her physical prowess and intelligence.
As someone who’s not the most familiar with Aquaman’s mythos, I was worried that Mera might just be a female version of him and have similar powers but she’s totally her own entity with her own independent skillsets. Aquaman himself is more of a brawler while Mera uses her wit and powers to gain the upper hand in battle.


One instance sees her cornered in a wine shop and she ends up using all of the bottled wine and creating these sharp spikes to pierce her foes with. Wan handles action sequences like a seasoned veteran by both presenting a handful of well-shot long takes that allow the action to flow beautifully rather than be muddled by choppy editing and making creative use of the characters and their powers.
There are a number of moments carefully placed throughout the film that made me audibly react in awe of the sheer magnificence of the various fight scenes. Aquaman slams people around like they’re weightless canon fodder, Black Manta goes toe to toe a couple of times with Aquaman and really lays a beatdown on him, and there’s an almost dynamic element to it all with the characters making quick use of their surroundings in unexpected ways.

This not only helps to create crowd-pleasing moments but builds character, showcasing their strength and ability to think quickly on their feet.


Where Aquaman falls flat can be in some of the writing. Yes, there’s a number of great scenes and the story is well-constructed but specifically the dialogue. Whenever exposition needs to be presented to the viewer, it is handled incredibly carelessly and feels like it’s ignoring the biggest screenwriting lessons out there.

Early on when we’re first introduced to King Orm, the film is setting up his motivations, what he needs to accomplish his goals, and so on. Instead of maybe dishing out some of this information throughout the movie, it just shoves it all down your throat right away and it really crams it in there. They don’t make an effort to seamlessly integrate it in a way that feels natural, it’s VERY forced and comes across as nonsensical jargon that the characters obviously know already but need to reiterate aloud for the audience.
In a way, the expository dialogue really treats the viewer like they’re painfully dumb despite DC films sort of being known for having complex themes. These moments happen quite a lot throughout the movie and they’re hard to watch without wincing at how poorly executed they are.


Similarly, in a movie that is largely set underwater and has lots of action, it’s obviously going to have lots of special effects. The CGI is hit or miss, sometimes it looks quite good, sometimes it looks really bad and you can clearly see when someone’s on a green screen or when you’re watching digital people run around.
Every movie has the occasional lackluster CG shot but Aquaman has a number of them and they’re not just lackluster, they can look really unpolished and outdated. This could be a case of Warner Brothers holding back on giving the film a massive budget due to the fact DC has been on a downhill slope recently and Aquaman is a pretty risky film but for a movie that so desperately relies on special effects, it can look rather sloppy at times.
That’s not to say that Aquaman is an ugly movie because it has lots of eye candy to absorb in its unique world. James Wan uses Aquaman to establish himself as a visionary tentpole filmmaker among the ranks of Peter Jackson, George Lucas, or James Cameron. He creates a rich universe with plenty of colors, life, and exciting opportunities for bold new stories in the future.

The Verdict:
With two fleshed out villains layered with meaningful motivations, an enrapturing world, enthralling action sequences, and an ensemble of varied characters, Aquaman is a flawed yet triumphant and brave entry in a new era of DC films. Director James Wan gracefully swan-dives into a daunting and previously thought to be an impossible universe to tackle and handles it with pizazz.
Aquaman is a film I walked out of instantly desiring more of and creates a glimmer of hope for a previously doomed film franchise. If they can continue to produce this level of quality, it has potential to do what they’ve been wanting to do for the better part of a decade: rival Marvel’s cinematic universe without feeling like a direct copycat.

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