This review contains minor spoilers for Aquaman
Don’t see Aquaman.
It’s visually impressive, but there is nothing beneath the surface of this movie. When the script for Aquaman was being drafted, I honestly believe that the writers challenged themselves to create the most generic, tropey, cookie-cutter, formulaic superhero movie that they could dream up. And oh boy, did they succeed at that challenge. Aquaman has everything that we’ve seen a thousand times before: the cliché villain, the forced romantic moments, and the protagonist who is special because they’re born special. Jason Momoa, who plays the titular hero, offers a decent enough performance, as do most of the actors in this film, but it’s clear that the abysmal quality of the story prevents any actor from excelling here.
I could go on about all the things that I hate about this movie, like how the film seems to be completely unaware of the concept of tone, or how almost every single character in Aquaman is more static than a balloon rubbed frantically against a freshly-groomed Pomeranian, but I won’t do that in this review. I’ll be wasting everybody’s time, including my own, if I pick this movie apart, because we will seriously be here all day. Instead, I want to highlight why Aquaman is a step in the wrong direction for the critical success of the DC Extended Universe, or the DCEU for short.
Before we get into that, however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the good parts of this movie, as there are a few good parts. As I mentioned previously, the visual aspect of Aquaman is by far its strongest quality, and this explains itself if you’ve seen the movie or even the trailers; the CGI is airtight, and many of the settings dazzle with their striking, colorful eye-candy. Specifically, I loved the costumes: Black Manta’s costume looks as good as any comics fanboy could dream of, and Aquaman’s and his brother Orm’s final outfits contrast each other beautifully; they really couldn’t have done a better job with these costumes if they tried.
While the larger, epic battles in Aquaman are undeniable achievements on the technical level, their lack of context and whirlwind of visual information make them uninteresting and impossible to care about. The smaller, more melee-focused action scenes, however, have some unique choreography, some impressive and creative camera work, and some hard hits that will make you wince in sympathy pain. These fights were the high points of the movie for me, as they at least made me feel something, even it that feeling was only a fleeting excitement.
While we’re still on the positives, I like how this movie is a standalone feature that doesn’t worry itself with building future movies or tying into the larger context of the DCEU. Aquaman is definitely a solo outing, and I think that this is the right approach for DC’s solo films going forward. With that being said, Aquaman’s greatest failure in the big picture of the DCEU is how safe it plays everything. In case you somehow missed me complaining about how formulaic this movie is, this movie is laughably formulaic, and I mean that literally; I laughed at this movie a regrettable amount of times in the theater, and not in the “so bad, it’s good” kind of laughter. This is the kind of laughter that ends in a groan, because you’re able to predict nearly every single plot point of the film before it happens, and then you have to watch it unfold painfully before you. Aquaman leans so heavily on the tropes of the superhero and adventure genres that it becomes almost indistinguishable from these tropes, and that works to DC’s disadvantage in the grand scheme of things.
The DCEU is at a point where it needs to take risks. Every movie that DC has put out thus far is inexcusably flawed with the exception of Wonder Woman (I could throw in some evidence to back up this claim, but I honestly don’t think that’s necessary at this point). There’s been the drab and heartless Man of Steel, the excruciatingly stupid Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, whatever Suicide Squad is, and the soul-crushing catastrophe of Justice League. While it’s far from perfect, Wonder Woman is the only DCEU film that’s, well… good. A change to the formula clearly worked with Wonder Woman: that movie focused much more on character than the other films did, with a protagonist who was likeable, true to their comic book roots, and who experienced significant change throughout the story. While Aquaman adjusts DC’s approach to some degree, as the movie has a lighter tone than the rest of the DCEU, it still puts more value into its style than into its substance, and that right there is Aquaman’s biggest mistake, and the DCEU’s biggest mistake overall.
When it comes down to it, outstanding visuals just can’t salvage a terrible script. You see, plot doesn’t as much as overshadow character in Aquaman as it does violently stomp character to death. Speaking of character, the character of Aquaman himself feels entirely replaceable, like any other action-adventure protagonist could stand in for him and we wouldn’t bat an eyelash. To the movie’s credit, Aquaman is crueler and dumber than most action-adventure protagonists, but I think that’s serves more as a point against the movie than as a point for it, as I can barely bring myself to root for Aquaman in a movie called Aquaman. Like with most of the DCEU’s films, there’s a complete lack of understanding of what makes the protagonist of the movie special and distinct from other superheroes. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take Aquaman being a generic hero-dude over Batman gleefully gunning down criminals any day, but Aquaman’s lack of uniqueness certainly makes the movie more forgettable.
I should clarify something here: I don’t hate DC. In fact, I love DC. Like, a lot. I’ve been a Batman fan for literally as long as I can remember, and I grew up watching cartoons like Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited, Batman: The Animated Series, and Static Shock. I have way too much love for DC’s characters, and that’s precisely why I find their live-action movies to be so disappointing. Not only are these objectively terrible films, they’re also monstrous misinterpretations of these beloved characters. I’m by no means an Aquaman expert (I haven’t read a single Aquaman comic in my life), but comparing the DCEU version of Aquaman to the version of Aquaman in the Justice League cartoons, for example, is night and day. One Aquaman is a loosely-defined caricature being dragged this way and that way by the plot, and the other Aquaman is a decisive warrior-king with uncompromising morals and priorities who has real fears, desires, and motivations. To put it succinctly, he’s a fully realized and complex character, and the Aquaman in Aquaman is far from being either of those things.
To reiterate: I love DC, and I love DC’s characters, and I truly want these movies to succeed as much as possible. So when I say that watching Aquaman is the movie equivalent of a dead tuna that has been rotting on the sidewalk for three weeks being served to you on a silver platter, just know that that statement comes from a place of love.
You know what? I’m not done bemoaning this movie yet. I know I said I wasn’t going to do this, but I can’t get over how unbelievably friggin’ stupid this movie can be. There’s a scene in Aquaman where a group of pirates highjacks a submarine, and one of the pirates fires a GRENADE LAUNCHER while inside the vessel. Why, just why, would you even bring a grenade launcher into a submarine in the first place? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a grenade scientist, or a submarine scientist, to figure out that if you fire an explosive weapon inside of a submarine, that’s a guaranteed one-way express ticket to Davy Jones’ locker. I know that this is a small detail, but it is far from the only example of Aquaman scratching its head and mumbling, “Logic? Hmm, never heard of it.”
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s discuss how Aquaman ranks compared to the other DCEU movies. It’s better than most of them, but that’s like saying that an apple with four maggots in it is better than an apple with five maggots in it. While Aquaman separates itself from the impossibly broken messes of Suicide Squad and Justice League, it fails to stand out from or rise above its competitors and predecessors in any way, with the exception of its flashy visuals. Given that the DCEU seems intent on slowly dragging itself into its own putrid grave, Aquaman should be the final nail in the DCEU’s coffin that causes it to sink into the earth.
However, Aquaman is performing exceptionally at the box office, because audiences like Jason Momoa and the movie looks nice (it’s grossed over $600 million worldwide at the time of writing this). I honestly believe that a reboot or a massive restructure is DC’s best bet at this point if they want these movies to succeed critically, but given how commercially successful Aquaman has been thus far, it’s unlikely they’ll take this route. If anything, Aquaman has proven that a sub-par, heavily formulaic movie will rake in loads of dough for DC and Warner Bros, and I have no doubt that this strategy will be capitalized on (it’s really the same strategy that the DCEU has been using all along, but Aquaman only confirms this further). So while the exact future of the DCEU remains unknown, I’d expect it to limp on for at least a few more years, and I’d expect more lackluster garbage fires of movies along the way.