James Wan’s Aquaman is a wholly entertaining, visually impressive, and an action-packed superhero film that fires on all cylinders thanks to some great visuals and fantastic performances from its’ ensemble cast. This film acts a huge step up for the DCEU and for me personally, is the franchise’s second-best film just behind Wonder Woman. It’s also one of DC’s breeziest films, that easily sails by (pun intended) despite clocking in at a lengthy runtime of almost 143 minutes. While the film is bogged down by several key narrative and tonal issues, what works most in the film’s favor is Wan’s amazing ability to craft a film that works very well on a visual and scene-by-scene level.
On a technical level, Aquaman is one of the DCEU’s most visually engrossing films to date. One of the foremost aspects, of course, is the stunning use of CGI in the film. It takes a bit of time to get adjusted to the aggressively colorful and bright color palette of the effects used in the film, especially when taking into consideration that past DCEU films have been infamously dark and murky. However, once the movie kicks into gear, the rich visuals produced by the special effects and CGI in the film feel extraordinary – the sequence where we see Atlantis for the first time is unforgettable.
From the large-scale battle sequences to the kingdom’s set-piece locations, Aquaman is consistently boasting a visual feast for the eyes. Adding to the remarkable effects is the stunning cinematography from Don Burgess, whose credits include Wan’s previous film, The Conjuring 2. Burgess’ cinematography in the film includes everything from epic wide shots to exciting one-takes and each shot is composed to look like it’s straight out of a comic book but still distinctly cinematic. One of the most memorable shot sequences of the film to look out for occurs when we see Aquaman and Mera jump out of a stolen boat into the ocean. All in all, Aquaman is a deeply immersive film, thanks to the use of great effects and cinematography work that make the film’s wonderful set-piece scenes and locations truly come to life for the audience.
Aquaman is also just a genuinely entertaining film. There is a great focus on characters and even though it’s not a particularly emotional film, the charm and likability of the ensemble cast playing these characters really works. Willem Dafoe, Amber Heard, and Nicole Kidman are great supporting actors and the relationship between Dafoe’s character (Vulko) and Momoa’s character is always entertaining. Of course, the best performer in the film is the ever-charismatic Jason Momoa, without whom the film would be impossible. Momoa really shows his versatility as an actor this movie as he succeeds in all portions of the film- the funny, the action-packed, and even some of the emotional moments. Momoa is perfectly casted as Aquaman and is clearly having a lot of fun with role.
Additionally, there is an immense amount of excellent world-building and even though there is an over-reliance on exposition, that immersive factor really helps create the environment for the audience in an authentic way. The movie is also great in the way in which it explores the interesting dynamic Arthur Curry has with Atlantis and the surface world- king of one and inhabitant of the other. Furthermore, the film is filled with lots of imaginative and entertaining sequences. It’s full of heart-pounding action sequences that include great action choreography, visuals, and all kinds of great superhero mayhem we would expect from a big-budget film of this sort. One of the best parts of this movie is that unlike most superhero films, it transcends some of the typical good guy vs bad guy trope and goes for a more interesting approach by having scenes that take on the form of different genres/styles- adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, and yes- even horror.
Much of Aquaman’s major narrative problems, therefore, don’t necessarily occur because of individual sequences or scenes. The largest problem with the storytelling in this film is the way in which it all comes together. The pacing and contrasting tones of the movie feel very inconsistent at times and halt the natural progression of the story. There are several scenes, particularly at the beginning of the movie, that also feel out of order and it almost feels like the movie is having a hard time keeping up with itself. Some parts of the movie feel rushed and others feel unnecessarily elongated and overall, the storytelling is usually more jarring than consistent. It doesn’t help that the dialogue of the movie is often wooden and even occasionally laughably bad. There is also an overabundance of characters and subplots in the film as well.
Black Manta, in particular, who was heavily advertised in the marketing of the film, has very little to do here and only makes the storyline feel more distracted. Personally, I would have preferred this film to stay solely focused on one villain. Speaking of which, Patrick Wilson’s performance as King Orm is also just a bit weak and not as engaging as it should have been. Overall, despite having great individual scenes, the narrative flow of Aquaman isn’t quite as consistent or engaging as it should have been. Unfortunately, the elements of a better film are all there but just don’t come together quite as well as they could have.
Despite its issues, however, Aquaman succeeds on more levels than it fails. It’s a high-octane superhero origin story that goes for an adventurous and epic take on its character. If I were to describe this movie with one analogy, it would be LOTR meets an 80s episode of Power Rangers. Wan has somehow found a way to balance the cheesiness of this character and the epicness of the story and scale. Aquaman is a bit frustrating to watch because you can envision a better version of the film in your head, but the movie still delivers fun moments and keeps you mostly engaged with the characters till the end.