AQUAMAN: Everything’s Better, Down Where It’s Wetter, Under the Sea

We live in divisive times.

It seems like we’re more divided now than we’ve ever been. During these times, it’s important to have something we can all agree on.

Now, thanks to James Wan’s 2018 blockbuster Aquaman, we have that something.

That something, dear friends, is a giant octopus playing the drums.

Images: Warner Bros.

A drum-playing giant octopus is something that is objectively great. No one can deny this. It is a basic fact. After all, what creature could be more adept at drum-playing than one with eight limbs? Are tentacles limbs?

But Aquaman is, after all, a movie that cost a couple hundred million dollars to make, and presumably some of that money was used for things other than creating the magnificent creature that shall henceforth be known as The Octopus of Unification.

So, other than that majestic mollusk, how is the rest of the film? Turns out, it’s surprisingly fun.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet, you’re probably aware that Aquaman is a character who gets made fun of a lot. He’s a guy who’s from Atlantis, rides on the backs of seahorses and can talk to fish. His sidekick was a kid named Aqualad. He’s pretty easy to make fun of. The memes practically generate themselves.

So, how do you make such a widely-mocked character cool?

Why, by embracing it’s inherent silliness and going all the way over the top.

The movie was directed by James Wan, best known for his horror films which include Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring. He also made Furious 7, which is my personal favorite Fast and Furious movie. Wan is a very talented director, and Aquaman is a very fun movie with him at the helm (See what I did with that nautical metaphor?).

The movie is a visual extravaganza. Seriously, we’re talking Avatar-levels of visual effects prowess. The movie is chock-full of sumptuous eye candy. There’s a ton of CGI in this movie (Wikipedia lists eight companies that worked on the effects), which in the hands of a director like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich would get tedious after a while, but in Wan’s capable hands I never felt bored or overwhelmed. The sheer creativity and variety of the characters, creatures and locations in this movie consistently impressed me.

Think about it for a second. How do you make a movie where large portions of it take place underwater? You can’t put actors underwater, since, you know, they wouldn’t be able to breathe. Water-based movies are notoriously difficult to make, but how do you make a water-based movie and film underwater sequences without actual water? The logistics involved in the making of this film are mind-blowing.

I watched the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray and it showed that the actors were constantly suspended from harnesses for the underwater scenes, in order to simulate the movement of the water. It takes damn good actors to be able to act convincingly while suspended from a harness in front of a bunch of blue screens, knowing that everything around you will be digitally added later. Heck, even the characters’ hair had to be computer-generated for the underwater scenes, and Industrial Light & Magic had to upgrade their hair-simulation technology in order to get it right.

What I’m saying is the fact that this film works at all is a pretty massive accomplishment. It would have been so easy to screw this up, but the filmmakers put a ton of effort into making this movie a gorgeous visual feast that is truly a wonder to behold. There is nothing else quite like it. Has there ever been a movie before this one that featured armored war sharks, a race of warrior hermit crabs, and of course a drum-playing octopus? I don’t think so.

So we’ve established that the movie is a visual powerhouse, but what about the story? That’s more of a mixed bag, but it still ends up working pretty well. Aquaman’s real name is Arthur Curry, and the movie shows us how he is the son of a human lighthouse-keeper and the Queen of Atlantis. As such, he is only half-Atlantean, and is regarded as a half-breed by his younger half-brother Prince Orm, played by frequent James Wan collaborator Patrick Wilson.

In order to defeat his power-hungry half-brother, Arthur must go on a quest to find the mythical Trident of Atlan, and if that sounds clichéd to you that’s because it is. The trident is the movie’s MacGuffin, but unlike many other MacGuffins this one does have a purpose beyond just driving the plot forward. Accompanying Arthur on his quest is Mera, played by Amber Heard. Mera is a badass who has the ability to psychically control bodies of water…I think. The movie does a good job of establishing her as Arthur’s equal. She never needs rescuing and is anything but a damsel in distress, and Amber Heard has great chemistry with Jason Momoa.

Oh right, Aquaman is played by Jason Momoa, best known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones and as Conan the Barbarian, which let’s face it are basically the same character. We previously saw him in 2017’s Justice League, where Momoa showed he has the charisma and even the comedic chops to make Aquaman a fun character. He’s also an intimidating physical presence who is completely believable in the movie’s many action scenes.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is great fun. James Wan shows once again that he is a talented action director. I love the way he moves the camera during the action scenes. The camera moves a lot but it’s never shaky, it gives the action a very smooth and fluid feel. He also finds cool ways to visually connect multiple characters during an action sequence, which reminds the viewer that multiple things are happening simultaneously and provides a strong sense of spatial awareness. The viewer is always aware of where everyone is and what they are doing, so you don’t get lost trying to follow everything.

My favorite sequence has to be the one set in Sicily, where Arthur and Mera throw down with the villainous Black Manta and his crew of elite Atlantean soldiers. The sequence is a ton of fun, the setting is beautiful, the choreography and camerawork are excellent and Black Manta is extremely cool. There’s also a beautiful single-shot sequence where one of the Atlanteans crashes through the walls of several buildings, with the camera following close behind. It’s just terrific.

Black Manta is the movie’s secondary villain, and he doesn’t get as much to do as Arthur’s half-brother Prince Orm, but he still makes an impression. The movie is clearly setting up Black Manta to be a primary antagonist for future aquatic adventures, which are all but guaranteed given that this movie made more than a billion dollars at the box office. Black Manta is a cool-ass character and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. I hadn’t seen Aquaman when I wrote about the villains of 2018 (I only just got around to watching it this last weekend) but if I had Orm and Black Manta would have more than earned their inclusion.

This is not a perfect movie by any stretch. It’s overlong, the plot is predictable and not terribly original, some of the supporting characters are underused, and there are some clunkers in the dialogue. But it’s very fun and endlessly creative, you really get the impression that the filmmakers must have had fun designing all of the film’s myriad creatures. There are so many creatures in this movie that it practically qualifies as a Monster Mash movie. The ones I’ve described are but a tiny fraction of the overall population of beasts and critters that inhabit this movie.

While watching it, I found myself in awe of the sheer fact that this movie exists. It blows my mind that this movie was even made. That movie studio executives even signed off on this movie and all of its craziness is surprising to begin with, but even more impressive is the movie’s huge box-office take. This is the highest-grossing movie based on a DC Comics character ever. Who would have thought that Aquaman could beat Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman at the box office? Not me, certainly. This is my second-favorite of DC’s shared-universe movies (Wonder Woman is still my favorite) and shows that DC characters still have some gas left in the tank, despite the superhero-movie market having been largely dominated by Marvel for most of the past decade.

Aquaman is a big, beautiful, cheesy, flawed, ungainly, highly-entertaining beast of a movie. There’s nothing else quite like it. And if you watch it and decide that it’s not your cup of tea that’s fine. At least we’ll always have the Octopus of Unification.

Wonderful Wonder Woman

After the twin disappointments of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad last year, DC badly needed a genuine hit. Sure, both those films made plenty of money, but received awful reviews which hurt their long-term prospects, and led to a sharp drop-off at the box office between their first and second weekends. Fortunately, Wonder Woman is here to save the day, and her first-ever solo movie is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and should have more staying power than her predecessors.
Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, so it’s a little ridiculous that it took 76 years for her to finally get a movie of her own. It wasn’t until Batman V Superman last year that she even made her big-screen debut. When Israeli actress Gal Gadot was announced to play the character, fan reaction was mixed to say the least, but Gadot has proved the naysayers wrong by delivering a powerful performance, equal-parts badass warrior and believer in the inherent good of mankind, which is an attitude the world could always use more of these days. She’s just awesome.

Image: Warner Bros.

One of the advantages of not having had a solo film before is that a Wonder Woman origin story feels fresh. How many times have we seen origin stories for Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man? How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die? So…many…times. The origin of Wonder Woman is a story that has not been told onscreen before, and even though it follows some familiar beats, it still feels lively, original, and heartfelt.
Wonder Woman’s real name is Diana, and she was born and raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, which was created by Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, the god of war. Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, who is the Queen of the Amazons, and was raised as a warrior, initially against her mother’s wishes. Her life is turned upside-down when a plane crashes in the water off the coast of Themyscira. She saves the plane’s occupant, who just so happens to be the first man she’s ever seen in her life. The man’s name is Steve Trevor, and he brings the Amazons grave news from the outside world. He tells them of a massive war, of millions dead, and of weapons capable of killing millions more men, women, and children. Again going against her mother’s wishes, she resolves to help Steve and goes with him to London. The year is 1918, and the war is World War I.

Image: Warner Bros.

Steve is played by Chris Pine, who has to be one of the most likable actors in Hollywood today, and the chemistry of Pine and Gadot is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Diana is a fish out of water in the modern world (modern by 1918 standards anyway) and there are very funny scenes of her attempting to understand this strange new world she finds herself in. Soon after she meets Steve, she asks him, “Are you considered an average example of your sex?” to which he replies, “I’m…above average.”
The movie was directed by Patty Jenkins, whose 2003 film Monster earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress. This is Jenkins’ first directorial feature since then, and she nails it. A character like Wonder Woman (although she’s never actually called that in the movie) can be difficult tonally, meaning that it can be hard to balance the more serious aspects of her character with some of the goofier ones, like the Lasso of Truth, which is kind of silly. But Jenkins makes it easy to care about Diana and Steve and the larger conflict unfolding, while also adding the right amount of humor. One of the biggest complaints people had with the previous DC movies was that they were too dark and joyless, but Jenkins’ film tells a serious and coherent story that is also a hell of a lot more fun than its predecessors.
It also nails the action sequences, providing thrilling action set pieces that are every bit as good as the Zack Snyder-directed action scenes from earlier films (say what you will about Zack Snyder, the dude knows how to film a fight scene) and are significantly better than the choppily-edited action scenes from David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Seeing Diana in action is an absolute blast, she kicks all kinds of ass. The movie takes the potentially-absurd sight of a beautiful woman in a brightly-colored bustier striding into the no man’s land between trenches and turns it into something stirring and powerful. And give a lot of credit to Gadot for all the fight training she did, she makes Wonder Woman a butt-kicking force of nature.

Image: Warner Bros.

This is Gadot’s first real starring role, after supporting roles in Batman V Superman and the Fast and Furious series, among others. She gives Diana an almost-childlike sense of wonder at the world, and an eternal optimism that cannot be dampened. She’s naïve at first, but her character matures organically as the film progresses, and she comes to realize, with Steve’s help, that things aren’t as black-and-white as she thought they were. There’s also a great moment early on where Diana starts to realize just how powerful she is, and her little gasp of joy is perfect. Not since Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man has a superhero film captured that sheer sense of joy that comes with discovering you’re more powerful than you thought you could be.
One weak point is the film’s villains. The performances by Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as the Evil German General and Evil German Scientist are fine but the characters are generic and don’t do much other than glower and cackle. There’s also a third, hidden villain, but I won’t say more about this character in the interest of avoiding spoilers. I will say that this character’s appearance makes the climax of the film a bit silly, but it’s a minor complaint. The lackluster villains aren’t a huge problem, since the film overall is very good, but it’s a bit disappointing that the bad guys are so bland.

Image: Warner Bros.

But it’s hard to complain when the rest of the movie is so good. It’s got great action and special effects, it’s more fun and less dark than other DC movies, and it has two terrific lead performances. We’ll be seeing Diana again later this year in Justice League, which hopefully will take more of its leads from this film than Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad. We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime we can all be happy that Wonder Woman is here to stay.