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Thoughts on AQUAMAN (Spoilers)

I finally got a copy of James Wan’s Aquaman from the library. I’m very impressed. It’s a solid action-fantasy movie, not only with spectacular visuals and worldbuilding and very imaginative action choreography, but with pretty solid characterization and writing too. The plot is a pretty by-the-numbers quest narrative moving from one set piece to the next, but the characters have depth (no pun intended) and nuance, and even the villains have sympathetic qualities and at least partly valid reasons for their actions.

Most of all, I’m pleasantly surprised by Jason Momoa. Pre-Aquaman, I knew him only as Ronon Dex in Stargate: Atlantis, and back then, he barely seemed capable of enunciating vowels and consonants with any clarity, let alone conveying any degree of emotion. But he’s grown far beyond those mushmouthed beginnings and actually gave a really solid performance as Arthur Curry — still in the same basic gruff, tough-guy wheelhouse, but with much more skill, expressiveness, and nuance. If anything, I’d say he was one of the better lead actors in the film, although that’s mainly because both Amber Heard as Mera and Patrick Wilson as Orm/Ocean Master were fairly bland. Wilson in particular gave a flat, robotic, dead-eyed performance that kept his role as the main villain from being as strong as it could’ve been, though I suppose it helped convey his coldness and sociopathy to a degree.

Although what really made Orm despicable was something the movie depicted but never overtly called out as such — his racism. All his talk about Arthur being a “half-breed mongrel” is rooted in the fantasy backstory of Aquaman being half-Atlantean and half-human, but it gains an extra weight and relevance with the casting of the Polynesian Momoa as Arthur and the pale, blond Wilson as Orm. I guess that casting makes the point without the dialogue having to come out and say it. It underlines that, for all that Orm makes a valid point about humanity’s depredation of the seas, his persistent fixation on Arthur’s “impure” blood exposes the real hate and egocentrism driving his push for war. Indeed, given the diversity of the undersea races that Orm tries to force into an alliance, including fishy mer-people and crustacean-people, it’s clear that his intolerance of difference would’ve made him a bad leader. Which, again, feels very relevant right now.

I thought it was very interesting how they made Black Manta, here named David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a sympathetic figure through his close relationship with his father (Michael Beach, who voiced the Black Manta equivalent Devil Ray in the animated Justice League Unlimited), even while simultaneously painting them both as murdering pirate scum, and gave him a legitimate grievance against Aquaman for the latter’s callous refusal to save his father’s life, a decision Arthur would come to regret later on. It’s too bad, though, that the need to save Black Manta for the sequel kept the plot thread from having any real payoff. I suppose it paid off in Arthur’s decision at the end to take the more heroic route and spare Orm, but there should be payoff connecting more directly to Manta.

Back to the technical side, I was very impressed with the visual design. Lately I’ve come to feel that modern CGI movies are just too cluttered with things onscreen, and sometimes I get tired of the sheer visual overload. There were certainly plenty such images in this movie, but they didn’t seem as bothersome to me. Perhaps it’s because I saw them on my old, non-HD television and couldn’t see the details that clearly anyway, but maybe it’s because the images were so creative and unusual. It wasn’t just a horde of soldiers or orcs or whatever, but a wealth of exotic, novel, fanciful images of different types. And they weren’t all the same either — different sequences had different color palettes and thus different tones and styles. It was really refreshing how vividly colorful this movie was, unlike a lot of its DC Extended Universe predecessors and a lot of movies in general. The “Ring of Fire” battle sequence was the only time it fell victim to the “make everything blue and orange” fashion of so many modern films. Although one of the most stunning sequences was nearly monochrome — the “feeding frenzy” sequence with the Trench creatures underwater, lit only by the red of the flares. That was a truly amazing visual sequence unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before.

It was also nice to see a DCEU film remembering to focus on the civilians. This was more a fantasy epic than a superhero film, but it did take time here and there to show Arthur saving people, or at least to show how bystanders were affected by the action, as in the Sicily sequence. Zack Snyder would’ve contrived some way to evacuate the town so he could blow up a bunch of architecture without having to bother acknowledging the existence of human beings, but the reactions of the townsfolk as their homes are barged into and trashed are an integral part of the flavor of the Sicily sequence — though it would’ve been nice to see some aftermath and cleanup, maybe Mera hydrokinetically hauling up some sunken treasure to help pay for repairs.

If I had a problem with the film, it’s that it was too fond of having quiet or personal scenes suddenly interrupted by explosions and villain attacks as a quickie scene-transition device. I think that happened three or four times, and it got a bit repetitive. The film was also a bit too in love with its elaborate CGI continuous-shot time cuts and swooping camera moves, which generally worked pretty well but were a bit self-conscious at times, as swoopy CGI shots usually are. Also, I’m just generally not a fan of stories about destined kings or chosen ones, although this one did a decent job of subverting that trope by stressing that Arthur was the least likely, least worthy king possible and well aware of it, and that his value was greater as a bridge between worlds and a hero to everyone than as a hereditary elite or whatever.

Also — ending spoilers here — why is Arthur the king if Queen Atlanna is still alive? Shouldn’t she be the ruler and he just the prince? Or is Atlantis a sexist society where only a man can rule? Well, to be generous, maybe he’s king because he defeated Orm in combat. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if he left Atlanna to rule Atlantis in his stead while he continued to operate as Aquaman out in the world.

So anyway, Aquaman is the sixth DCEU film I’ve seen (I’m on the library’s waiting list for Shazam!), and the third one I’ve liked, since I actually liked Justice League better than most people did. Although I liked that one with reservations, whereas Wonder Woman and Aquaman are both solid, enjoyable superhero films. Anyway, it does seem like the DCEU is finally on the right path.

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