(SPOILERS) If Aquaman has a problem – although it actually has two – it’s the problem of the bloated blockbuster. There's just too much of it. And the more-more-more element eventual becomes wearing, even when most of that more-more-more is, on a scene-by-scene basis, terrifically executed. If there's one thing this movie proves above all else, it's that you can let director James Wan loose in any given sandpit and he’ll make an above-and-beyond castle out of it. Aquaman isn't a classic, but it isn’t for want of his trying.
One of the biggest compliments I can give the picture is that Wan for the most part really does make the inherent corniness of much (all?) of the plotting, characters and dialogue work for the its greater good in a way only someone who understands how George Lucas playing it straight in Star Wars was fundamental to its success could.
And there's real artistry here too, both in terms of the construction of the action sequence and in the use of CGI, that you just don't get generally observe in the average blockbuster. A set piece – and there are a lot of set pieces – in Sicily, so an Arthur out of water, is giddily virtuoso as Wan zooms in and out from separate slices of rooftop (and ceiling-crashing) mayhem involving Arthur (Jason Momoa) and Mera (Amber Heard) respectively. It's so confidently, effortlessly impressive, I had to catch myself at one point realising a whole part of it was devoted to an incidental antagonist running through wall after wall after wall below in order to catch up with Mera above.
Soon after, the duo leap into a Lovecraftian abyss (nicely prefigured, Raimi style, by a foregrounded copy of The Dulwich Horror in the prologue) as Trench creature upon Trench creature piles upon their boat; as they descend with a flaming flare for protection, the ocean forms a bubble of the multitudinous creatures around them. It’s an extraordinary visual, and a delight that Wan has the freedom to bring his greater artistic sensibility over from his horrors (the mis en scene of The Further in Insidious, for example) to a lavish blockbuster (certainly, while I had a blast with Fast & Furious 7, it didn’t allow him this degree of licence).
We’re an hour into the movie before the Indy/National Treasure quest begins, during which we've had a luxury prologue concerning Aquaman's origins, his talking to the fishies (mercifully The Phantom Menaceelement is dispensed with quickly), the origins of Black Manta (Yayha Abdul-Mateen III gets an amazingly cool costume, comic-booky in all the right ways, but he's entirely handicapped by the most generic character in a movie overflowing with generic characters), establishing the antagonistic agenda of Arthur's half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson, fine, but not especially indelible) by way of a false-flag attempt to bring about war with the humans (although, in this case, one has to agree with Orm that we're entirely culpable for shitting all over his oceans) and a hasty challenge to the throne by Arthur that sees him sent packing in the manner of any good hero's journey (the movie’s an embarrassment of riches as far as fights are concerned); Aquaman is bursting at the seams, such that you feel there's already been a movie's worth of action before Arthur leaps out of a plane over the Sahara. Which amounts to poor structuring really, unless you want your main audience for home viewing… which in the long run, I guess it probably will be.
Later, we're served an abridged history of Atlantis (taking in such elements as its destruction through misuse of energy devices and mutation of Atlantean forms, both of which have some basis in the Edgar Cayce readings, give or take actually taking up residence under the sea), and the, to use Arthur's phraseology, awesome decision to visit the centre of the Earth, where Arthur's mum Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) has not so much been hiding out as trapped for three decades. After all this, I'll readily admit that the idea of a CGI-bonanza ultra-battle climax didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm, but while it's easily the least engaging part of the movie, it does at least avoid going on ad nauseam. It's almost made worthwhile too by the somewhat hilarious choice to have Orm's plotline resolved by mum's return; it’s simultaneously the corniest thing ever and completely "Yeah, what else is he going to do, short of bawling his eyes out?"
The bigger problem than the bloat, though, the issue preventing the movie from hitting a homerun, is that most of the cast just don’t pop. Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus) and Willem Dafoe (Vulko) are great in smaller roles – seriously, Dolph is dynamite – but they don’t get much that's really interesting to do. And why the effects guy saw fit to smooth out young Vulko's wrinkles when Dafoe is the very exemplar of the guy who looked about 50 when he was 25 is beyond me. Kidman is okay – it's not exactly a taxing part – while Temeura Morrison provides a nice line in parental acceptance as Thomas Curry (that said, while the movie doesn't depend on it, it's nice all the same to see Atlanna and Thomas reunited at the end, even if the scenario is very reminiscent of Ant-Man and Wasp earlier this year).
As for the leads, I really needed convincing Momoa was a good fit for Aquaman, as I didn't warm at all to his Aquabrah persona in Justice League; Zack Snyder's choices seemed like a desperate attempt to over-compensate for a character generally seen as a bit laughable. So the good news is that he’s fine and likeable – and a brah – and that he can wield a sense of humour as well as a trident. There's a water-off-a-duck's-back flippancy to even his sincerer moments (noting that he made an enemy of Manta by opting not to save his dad, Momoa plays it straight, but you could quite believe, given another beat, he'd just shrug and move on, and I love his "We’ll talk" to Orm as the latter's taken off in cuffs, as if he'll visit him in solitary with a couple of lattes). But for all that, he can't go that extra yard to make Arthur someone to see the movie for, to root for. Amber Heard is… well, she's fine too, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember anything about Mera aside from her costume come the end credits.
Wan brings a good deal of humour to the table (a squid playing drums, Mera eating roses, the classic barfight scenario turning out to be a request for an autograph), has come up aces in the production and costume design departments (the "stormtrooper" outfits are some of the best we've seen this side of the era Wan's hearkening back to; I think I detected a hint of Krull there) and has overseen CG world-building that for the most part looks the business; it was an ongoing gag in Entourage that James Cameron was going to make an Aquaman, but on this basis the watery Avatar sequels have a genuinely high bar to surpass. Rupert Gregson-Williams also provides a surprisingly great synth-heavy soundtrack, suggestive at times of Jean-Michel Jarre and Daft Punk’s elegant work on TRON Legacy (although, ultimately, Aquaman’s a little too busy for that kind of accolade).
Admittedly, I'm not overly enthused by the prospect of a rematch with Black Manta, unless they seriously up the guy's wit and charisma, although I suspect he'll be a supporting baddie again, since he's utterly outmatched by Arthur, even with Atlantean tech on his side. Of which, the DCU has now established a similar dilemma to the MCU, with an isolationist pocket of the Earth. You can understand the Atlanteans shunning their surface cousins, but it does rather beggar belief that they'll willingly swim about in muck when they can simply deposit the entirety of the oceans' plastic on dry land at a whim. Takes all sorts, I guess. Hopefully, they'll explore this element further in sequels.
So colour me impressed. James Wan has more than broken the at-best-mixed streak of WB/DC properties post-Nolan's Batverse. Sure, this is still mixed – it really needed protagonists you were fully behind to break out into the Raiders-affair it has its sights on – but its director has done everything right. He's also made the best-looking superhero flick of the year in Aquaman, which gets him even more kudos. In the end, though, even he couldn't work miracles with his raw materials.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.