"My powers are useless, they said! My powers are stupid, they said!" So runs a frequent line if you type "Aquaman meme" into Google Image's search engine. (My favorite is the one with Aquaman summoning Cthulhu : 3 ) This largely matches the general attitude of mainstream audiences not familiar with some of Aquaman's more impressive comic book appearances. Aquaman has been cool before, usually with long hair and a beard or when used to summon not cuddly dolphins but sharks and giant squids. Moreover, Geoff Johns recent run on Aquaman has been not just a superb series but also a brilliant argument that the world significantly under-values a hero of great, untapped potential. And with Warner Brothers and DC's few good ideas being that Jason Mamoa, aka America's favorite gothic trucker, should play Aquaman (Dear WB and DC: Let James Gunn do whatever he wants), we viewers do get the rather rare phenomenon of not being able to mock Aquaman without feeling like a complete tool.
The overall result is... Perhaps a notch above Justice League (In Dawn of Justice, they teased us with the Devil, but instead of giving us Darkseid, Justice League ended up giving us... Steppenwolf. If you haven't seen JL, that last sentence is as underwhelming as it sounds), but ultimately results in a muddled movie with both admirable qualities but also some glaring errors that prevent it from dolphin leaping in the sea and instead relegate it to dog paddling in the public pool. Unlike DC's best Extended Universe film Wonder Woman, Aquaman simply fails to soar.
Aquaman follows Arthur Curry, the half land dweller and half Atlantean son of a lighthouse keeper and of an Atlantean princess. After Atlantean soldiers fail to kidnap his mother, the princess leaves her infant son in order to prevent her baby and baby daddy to confront her would be captors in Atlantis. As he grows older, Arthur learns how to summon sea life to his aid, how to swim with super-human speed and strength, and how to throw down Atlantean style via the tutelage of Atlantean counselor Nuidis Vulko. It is one year after Arthur helps the Justice League defeat Steppenwolf that the Atlantean Mera contacts Arthur again, imploring him to stop his half brother and Atlantean King Orm Marius from waging war on the surface for the crimes of polluting the seas. Arthur reluctantly agrees to this, but ends up earnestly attempting to not just stop his brother, but also to become the new King of Atlantis.
The inclusion of director and horror maestro James Wan had given me hope that Wan would be able to give buoyancy to the little superhero movie that could, and in some respects he succeeds. The world of Atlantis and its Atlanteans is lush, sleek, and colorful, promising at least a fiesta for your eyes. Action sequences, especially the Sicily/Black Manta battle, the race against amphibious Lovecraftian monstrosities known as the Trenches, and the final epic war battle that throws everything including the kitchen sink, are all masterfully orchestrated, sometimes stunningly well. The cast is mostly impressive, and I can't think of many more people who could play Aquaman as well as Mamoa, but its Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta who nearly steals the show, giving viewers as ruthless and as vicious a villain as they could ever ask for, matched with the strange, fluid maneuverability of his bulky if not utterly bad-ass Manta suit. This was the Manta of Geoff John's run that I wanted to see, and I was not left disappointed.
However, despite being very impressed by Aquaman's style, I was left disappointed by the movie's substance. The writing is subpar, with lackluster dialogue that undermined any kind of passion I could have felt for the film (Not to toot my own horn, but if Manta said "I'll gut you like the fish you are" to me and not Arthur, I think I would have said, "Wait, seriously?" instead of screeching before he tore out my entrails). This all adds up to a movie that, despite looking rather wondrous, feels predictable and stale. With too many lines I got the feeling that characters were merely saying whatever needed to be said to move the plot along but not much that could give the story any depth. And as undeniably cool as Jason Mamoa appears as a version of Aquaman who looks like he could do quite well as a bouncer at a Slayer concert, its as if the movie is never able to give us a clear, definite idea of who the man is. He's a dense enough meat-head to kick ass first and ask questions later and not notice his BO around a beautiful woman, but his knowledge of Roman history pays off conveniently at a certain plot point despite his not knowing that the movie Pinocchio is based off of a book (Because, you know, when has Disney ever made a movie based off a book?) Nor do we get a clear idea of why Arthur chooses to become a hero of both the land and the sea: We know that he resents the Atlanteans because he believes that they executed his mother for treason, but there's not much in the way of reasons given as to why Arthur ends up wanting to become protector and King of Atlantis. The plot feels bare bones, proceeding from point A to B to C within a dull paint by the numbers structure: within that plot I did not get the sense that Aquaman really matured or learned anything that justifies his saving both environmentally destructive humans and Atlanteans, the victims of cataclysmic pollution.
Aquaman is at least an ambitious undertaking but fails to live up to its full potential. A superior sequel would need to possess a script that has far more plot substance and doesn't just move from one exemplary fight scene to the next. The DC Extended Universe's best film is easily Wonder Woman, a movie that excelled in both action and characterization, with a philosophy life-affirming enough to pierce the shell of even the most hardened cynic. For another Aquaman movie to even begin to enter the same level as Wonder Woman, the former will need to do more to insure that the sushi tastes great instead of just looks great.