James Wan directed “Aquaman” with a lot of confidence. There is very little in the way of indecision in the film; it knows exactly what it is and everything plays into the oddball sort of tone Wan evidently gunned for. It employs the same sort of kinetic slow-motion and commitment to its worldbuilding and central conceits that the Snyder films, and ones closest to them, in the modern DC film series already have, but feels very distinct from them, and perhaps even more distinct from the Donner-esque “Wonder Woman” and grimacing, unsure “Suicide Squad”. Certainly it’s the furthest from “Justice League” – where that film is beyond wracked by indecision and clash of tone, “Aquaman” beats its chest with its shlock. A ridiculously on-the-nose punctuated rock riff plays whenever Aquaman does, well, basically anything cool, in the film’s opening sequence. A first act setpiece glides in and out of flashback with precision and confidence the audience can follow without needless telegraphing. A Pitbull remix of “Africa” plays when the title character arrives in, indeed, Africa. And it’s not just the zaniness of the film’s visuals themselves, but the sheer amount of variance, as the film methodically introduces new designs associated with the many kingdoms of the seven seas, that compound and compound so the film is constantly raising the stakes not just dramatically (where the formulaic plot only really works because of the extremely game cast – particularly the lead, Jason Momoa, who the film would absolutely fall apart without – and the gusto with which Wan enforces it) but in terms of visual invention as well. The constant hook of the film isn’t “what will happen next?”, it’s “what will I see next?”.
The scale and visual invention of the movie, the free shlockiness but earnest worlbuilding, the constant variance of location and visual style, the likability of the cast, all these things work great. What works less well is some of the handling of the villains. Both of the film’s villains are well-acted and have compelling enough character concepts. The pirate hellbent on revenge that moulds himself into a hybridised amphibious killer works just fine. The king that deceitfully starts a war against land-dwelling people on account of the pollution and destruction they’ve brought to the oceans works less well. In terms of visuals and performance that character, Patrick Wilson’s “Ocean Master” works well, but the handling of him within the film’s story falls into a tradition of superhero villains (villains in general really) that espouse a logical, well-justified change to an injustice present in the world, then are marked with some ostentatious “evil” trait to muddy audience sympathies to them, before being dispatched by the hero and narrative at the end. The villain of “Black Panther” was particularly noted for falling into this tradition. Even more could be said of the villain of “The Dark Knight Rises”, where Christopher Nolan’s muddled politics flared up. There’s an inconsistent twinge to the film’s morality when pollution and ecological injustice and corruption are effectively handwaved in favour of technicalities about monarchy. Bringing up valid realworld ecological concerns then sucking them away to turn to escapist monarchy-idolatry feels morally and narratively undercooked in a way the earlier films in this series never did (”Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” being criticised for the opposite if anything, dwelling in the murky ethical and political issues that resulted out of the film’s characters and their ideologies). The shlock and superficiality of a film like this is enjoyable when that’s what it sticks to, but when it’s employed – wittingly or otherwise – to downplay very present realworld issues, it rankles.
It’s a gorgeous, stylish, fun film. I wish that’s all it was. Three and a half crabs, and a mounted seahorse.