Film Review: Aquaman (Spoiler Free)

The family and I saw Aquaman tonight. We saw it in IMAX in a mostly-filled theater (with, unfortunately, a chatterbox toddler right behind me). I normally don’t do IMAX, but in this case I read that the movie was filmed specifically in IMAX ratio, and I much prefer to get assigned seating, which my local theater only offers for IMAX and Dolby. Gotta say, the IMAX was worth the extra couple of bucks.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. Jason Momoa is terrific. He’s got a casual charm that is evident in almost every scene he’s in, and by rights he should be the connective tissue between the DCEU movies going forward, playing the same function as Marvel’s resident charmer, Robert Downey, Jr. Logistically that would be hard, but it would be nice if they could pull it off.

The underwater effects are extremely well-done, in terms of communicating visually when the characters are in water and when they’re in air. The wavy-hair you’d expect to see underwater is flawless, and they seem to do something very subtle but noticeable with the voices while underwater. The various undersea realms are visually distinct, which helps the narrative. Although my wife (not a comic book fan) was not at all impressed with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta, I thought the costume was as good a representation of a comic-book costume as I’ve seen in either a Marvel or DC movie. It felt perfectly functional, while at the same time it was faithful to the comics. Excellent. Willem Dafoe was predictably great as Aquaman’s mentor Vulko, while the chemistry between Momoa and Amber Herd’s Mera was convincing enough (although I personally thought his performance was the better of the two). There were also some terrific visual call-backs to the classic comics and 60’s cartoons featuring Aquaman that made me smile.

Now the so-so bits. They had to cover some of the same introductory ground as Justice League. It’s understandable, but annoying. The plot was… serviceable. Obviously the two films, having been released in the same year, were developed at pretty much the same time, but it felt like Aquaman had many of the same dramatic beats as Marvel’s powerhouse Black Panther. There were sub-plots that were entirely unnecessary for the main plot, and I can envision a fan edit that completely omits Black Manta without changing a single beat in the rest of the story. (Which is a shame, because I really like Black Manta, both in this film and generally as a villain). Visually, there were a lot of things that seemed way too familiar. The head of one of the big monsters could have been taken straight off the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring. Some of the underwater cities felt way too much like the Gungan city in The Phantom Menace. I suppose there are only so many ways you can show an underwater city, and this film had several to cover, but it was still distracting. (But not as distracting as the kid behind me. Ahem.)

And on to the stuff I didn’t like. While the film manages, for the first two-thirds, to avoid the cardinal sin of most of the other DCEU films, unfortunately Aquaman slid into it towards the end. That is, a huge battle with a bunch of CGI characters against a CGI background, all swirling around really quickly and the whole turning into CGI mud that I found hard to keep track of. James Wan manages to mitigate this effect somewhat by focusing on the individual characters as the rest of the battle swirls around them, but it felt way too much like the big fight at the end of Justice League, which I found unwatchable. Let’s see some plots that don’t require a big mass army battle at the end! And the music was… there? Completely forgettable, with no real noticeable themes for any of the characters or places that I can recall.

On the whole, this is definitely in the top two of DCEU movies (the other being Wonder Woman). It’s undeniably better than Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Justice League, and Suicide Squad. Which is, admittedly, not much to say, but it’s something. The best I could say about Wonder Woman was that it didn’t suck. This is actually a step above that. It’s not great, but it’s not bad, either. So I guess that makes this my favorite DCEU movie to date. Woot!

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

1 thought on “Film Review: Aquaman (Spoiler Free)

  1. Haven’t seen it yet, but given I’m a Iowa native, I can say Momoa is a bit of a local hero at point. I hope he has many future successes going forward.

    It is notable that he’s made a career of playing the Noble Savage archetype, whether it be in Stargate: Antlantis (there’s some irony!), the ill-fated Conan the Barbarian remake, and Game of Thrones. Not that Aquaman fits that archetype, not perfectly at least.

    I’m wondering if Momoa is capable of expanding his acting range in the future. He already has the required charisma.

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