Friday, December 28, 2018
DC Movies Watch: Aquaman (2018)
Format: Alamo Slaughter Lane
Who is Aquaman?
I can't remember a time when, thanks to Super Friends, I didn't know about Aquaman, the King of the Seven Seas. Somewhere there's a picture of me, age 5, in Aquaman underoos, shoving a heroic fist at the camera (I can't find it, and I've looked). Sea-adventure was still a deal in the 70's and early 80's, and as a kid who loved Jacques Cousteau specials, checked out endless books on sea-life from the library, was happy to visit the Aquarium - Aquaman sparked my imagination. I remember playing "Aquaman" in my backyard in Dallas circa 1980. The notion of riding sharks and talking to squid was a lot of fun.
But as I got into comics in the mid-80's, Aquaman seemed curiously undefined. He had some really goofy limitations, as did all DC heroes, it seemed. He had to get wet once per hour or lose his power, which... I mean, the guy couldn't watch a movie without sitting in a tub. And not long before I got into comics, someone made the decision to kill his kid and, shortly after I'd started reading comics, to remove his left hand.
As a character, he just wasn't ever all that defined in the titles I did read, and whenever I'd try to start picking up Aquaman as a title, as I did with the "Sub-Diego" jump and a few others, it just never took. Including that weird departure where it wasn't even Arthur Curry as Aquaman, but some guy we never really heard from again in an undersea swords and sorcery thing. Still, I know the broad strokes of Aquaman's history - even if it's more in spite of how DC manages some of their long-standing characters than because of a well-managed book or line of books. The desire to make Aquaman relevant or interesting just meant that a new writer would come on and make some drastic change that would just keep pushing Aquaman further and further from a character recognizable to the mass audience.
Weirdly, Aquaman had a couple of great villains in Black Manta and Ocean Master. And the deep seemed to be able to produce interesting threats on demand. The tension between land and sea was always kind of interesting, but the never ending cycle of Aquaman gaining and losing the throne of Atlantis became as tiresome as the Green Lantern Corps splintering and reforming.
I've been aware of Jason Momoa since season 1 of Game of Thrones, and he seems like a cheerful sort of dude-bro with something in the way of acting chops, even if he's not been threatening anyone's chances at The Oscars. Landing him for Aquaman way back when Zack Snyder was riding high and making very early announcements during production of Batman v Superman, I was surprised - but given that Snyder's casting was mostly about a particular vision he had for the DCU, a tatted-up, jeans-wearing Aquaman was the hand movie-dom was giving us.
The trainwrecky , un-even mess of Justice League gave us both the positives and negatives of Momoa in the role. He has his "lasso of truth" monologue that works pretty well, but the dude-bro "MY MAN!" bit just felt... less like Aquaman and more like "what if a pro wrestler joined the Justice League?". It's not exactly a "heavy is the head that wears the crown" take, but in DC's infinite wisdom, Aquaman wasn't yet Aquaman for this film, so... yeah, it's kind of depressing when you think about what a bad job they've done with the DC universe and why anything is happening.
Look, I love you guys. A lot of you were excited about Jason Momoa as Aquaman from jump, and I wasn't. That's my personal hurdle to overcome, and to find the charm in what he's doing versus what I would have preferred.
Aquaman (2018) was surely a make-or-break moment for DC as they entered a post-Snyder era with a new executive team headed up someone more familiar with dealing with licensing and IP than managing stories. Which, honestly, I'll argue may be very good for DC so they can settle down and quit getting in their own way, storywise. They also couldn't afford to go into this movie with the same half-finished CGI and wildly uneven tone of Justice League.
Thankfully, Aquaman is a visual feast that makes the absolute most of a chance to interpret and play with the notion of an undersea kingdom. While there's little in the way of a "canon" of design for any DC character's specific world, a few things tend to show up over and over with Aquaman, from form-fitting outfits (we're underwater here) to tridents and a mix of classical architecture and sci-fi, underwater environs. That's here and brilliantly designed - as are Atlantean armors, sea-creatures, architecture and more. Our first outing seeing Black Manta on screen actually surpasses any expectation I could have conjured, and is an absolute delight. Patrick Wilson as Orm donning a CGI Oceanmaster mask is one of the coolest things I wasn't expecting to see in this film.
Directed by horror maestro, James Wan, the movie's big action set pieces are... something. The more grounded battle in Sicily when Black Manta and a cadre of Atlantean soldiers chase down Aquaman and Mera is probably the best part of the film, and when it feels less like a mish-mash of CGI and more like an action sequence with stakes. There's some good, visceral stuff here, not the least of which is Mera's finishing blow that wraps her part of the battle.
Speaking of - Amber Heard as Mera points the way toward how superhero movies with romantic partnerships can work (even when the non-titular hero of the movie is obviously the better actor). the movie does a phenomenal job of making sure she's an equal to Arthur but without making her a Mary Sue or constantly feeling the gag is showing the audience how much better she is at this hero business than our lead - at least until the finale battle in which the female counterpart is always, suddenly useless for some reason. Not so here - Mera makes mistakes, she's literally a fish out of water, I guess. She isn't there to be the pretty sit-com wife to the big lug of a husband laughing at his jokes, nor a shrew who melts before his big lug charm.
That said - and this is where I break from praising the film, so buckle in - I'm not sure there's much motivation given to what she IS supposed to see in him. But I am also not into dudes, so I'll let you guys work that one out yourself.
You guys, I just didn't think this was a very good movie. At least from a story perspective. And in a year where no less than two Marvel films already made use of major story points to better effect, it's weird to see Ant-Man and the Wasp as the more effective of the two ways to do the same narrative beat. While Nicole Kidman is, for once, enjoyable in a film, it's impossible to not think about how Michelle Pfeiffer already did this and did it better back in July or so. And looked vaguely age appropriate to be the mother of the lead character.
Mostly I think the movie suffers from intense over-packing of narrative. There's at least two movies worth of stuff in Aquaman, maybe three, and the lack of room to explore anything happening feels like immature storytelling. To get everything in - Wan and Co. over-compensate with a sort of abbreviated, bullet-point storytelling which is actually incredibly common in DC Comics themselves, which can be frustratingly plot heavy. Similarly, the movie becomes all plot with no character or character development - to the point that I'll argue: this is the first superhero "first movie" movie I've seen where its arguable the lead character undergoes no character change from start to finish.
Arthur experiences some things, learns some things, but it's video game storytelling where the lead is sort of on a single path laid out in the opening, and, indeed, at the end he manages to fulfill that shot you saw of him in the trailers where he'd clearly accomplished his goal(s). He is exactly the same guy at the finish as he was at the start - a guy brimming with confidence who keeps being told by the prettiest girl in the movie that he's the chosen one, that he's the True King(tm), while doing absolutely nothing to suggest leadership potential or an ability to think ahead. It's part of why "chosen one" plots need to die already, but if you're going to do them, you need to actually sit down and think about what sort of journey your "chosen one" will endure to earn their reward.
It doesn't help that Momoa seems to just be playing himself, declaring everything "bad-ass" in a way I am 100% sure was not in a script anyone wrote. He sort of good-naturedly lumbers between scenes, reacting to whatever new threat rears its head - and there is a new threat every few minutes to fight - including the "what was that?" bit with the Trench monsters. But, yeah, the dialog in the movie is mostly intensely poor, the kind of stuff you see veteran actor Willem Defoe struggling with as he tries to make clunker after clunker in his flashback training scenes not seem like something written down on a 5x7 card explaining the plot. But it's also just sloppy. In two adjacent scenes, we learn Aquaman has no idea Pinocchio isn't just a Disney cartoon, and in the next we learn he has a surprising amount of knowledge about Roman historical figures thanks to his father, a Kiwi lighthouse keeper. Does Arthur read or not?, is I guess what I'm asking...
No one is going to complain that the movie is boring, exactly. It moves along at a staggering pace over 2+ hours, shoving scene after scene into the proceedings, cross cutting between the past and present, seemingly afraid of giving the audience a minute to ponder what the hell is actually happening or giving the characters a moment to reflect upon whatever happened in the prior scene.
The movie is deeply light-hearted, a reaction to Snyder's funeral dirge over 2.5 films. In many ways it works - I had a good laugh when Amber Heard hurled herself from a moving airplane. But it also harkens back to a sort of 1990's knowing nod to the audience that this is all absurd. Ancient piece of Atlantean technology requiring water to work? Why, yes, the dumb kid in the back is going to ask "why didn't he just pee on it?" - and so that's a joke in the movie.
More surprising is that, after all the hubbub about the death toll in Metropolis in Man of Steel and Superman and Lois making out on the ashes of dead Metropolitans in the same film, here our hero - in claiming the throne - shows up unannounced and immediately begins just murdering the hell out of the folks who are supposed to be his loyal subjects via a mythological death titan (and we can debate the efficacy of showing up with a dead man's trinket getting four nations in the middle of a war to fall in line all of a sudden), and then makes out with Mera as his new subjects die gruesome deaths in a 360 panorama all around them - but those multi-color explosions sure do look like fireworks!
Further, our villain, Orm (aka: Oceanmaster) is - much like Erik Killmonger of Black Panther - actually totally right. The movie pitches him as evil in a brash, dictator sort of way where we know he's evil because he doesn't like our hero - but the movie then reminds us "oh, yeah, we keep filling the oceans with trash and treating the sea like a toilet". And "yeah, I suppose, if you were bringing your wars into someone else's country and they had sci-fi laser technology, they probably would decide to push back". But the movie fails to make an argument for actual land-lubbing humans at any point, instead having Aquaman name random physical features of the surface that Atlanteans might find curious. While Orm's approach is decidedly undiplomatic, it's also a hell of an attention getter.
And don't get me started on the use of whales in this movie. Check out a book, movie.
Look, I didn't *hate* Aquaman. But we're in a period of superhero movie making that's surpassed anything I could have imagined as a kid. The scale and scope of Aquaman is beyond my wildest dreams of the 1980's. The visuals are spectacular, its absolutely not boring, and there's stuff to like. But at the end of the day, none of that is storytelling. I'm a 43 year old. I need something to hang onto when it comes to characters and narrative, not just some neat things to look at that will, no doubt, age poorly. Checking your script before you go in front of the camera is a good place to start, and while I'm fine with predictability in a blockbuster film, I shouldn't be checking my watch when the final battle is starting.
Marvel figured out how to do this in a way that didn't feel as shallow as a plotline on WWE. A billion dollar take tells me a whole lot of people will disagree, but in a year with Avengers 3, Spider-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Black Panther... this movie just feels like a whole lot of sturm und drang but no sense of story and character.