In the mid seventies when Richard Donner was tasked with bringing the original superhero to the silver screen he had a goal of translating Superman, in all his impossibility, contradiction, and lets face it, ridiculousness, onto celluloid. If he could do that, and get people to believe Chris Reeve could fly, then he had a film. The same philosophy rings true of Aquaman, one of DC’s most ridiculed superheroes. It was no easy task for James Wan, known for his defining and iconic work in the horror genre, to take the trident-wielding Arthur Curry and convince an audience that Aquaman was just as cool, powerful, and valid as Wonder Woman or The Dark Knight. But, despite some superhero clichés and uneasy moments, James Wan has made Aquaman relevant.
Arthur’s mixed Atlantean and Human heritage has been foregrounded in the casting of Jason Momoa, an actor born in Hawaii to a Polynesian father and a German, Irish, and Native American mother. The film picks up post-Justice League and Arthur has returned to his home town to be with his father and occasionally save the odd Russian submarine. It is made very clear that he does not want the responsibility of being a global superhero. Until his peace is interrupted by Mera (Amber Heard), a powerful Xebellian sorceress, who needs his help to stop Arthur’s half-brother Orm, portrayed by long term Wan collaborator Patrick Wilson, from declaring war on the surface. Predictably Arthur is not interested, but he changes his mind after Orm thrusts all of our waste that has polluted the oceans back onto land. This prompts a quest for the mystical trident of Atman which will grant him power over the seven seas and allow him to take his rightful place as King of Atlantis.
Aquaman bears resemblance to many of the best superhero films in recent years. There is the messages of empathy and a journey of discovery for our hero seen in Wonder Woman. Echoes of Black Panther in the conflict between Aquaman and Orm. Doesn’t take itself too seriously like Spider-Man Homecoming. It’s as if the production team have watched these films and copied what works all into one film. Arthur Curry may know his powers like T’Challa, but neither of them truly know what it means to be the next in line. Arthur knows he is not ready, he does not want to rule Atlantis, but the oceans need a king who does more than rule. They need someone who will protect their home and pave the way for a more inclusive and united future.
Wan embraces the wild, camp aspects of Aquaman as fully as Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman and makes every aspect, from the fish telepathy to the much talked about Black Manta helmet, feel like a fundamental and serious part of Aquaman. Neither Nicole Kidman nor Jason Momoa look laughable wielding a silver trident in some very well choreographed and executed fight sequences. Black Manta is every bit as terrifying as the reimagined Vulture and Mera does not have to play second fiddle to a male saviour. They are just as powerful and active as each other. Without Mera there would be no Aquaman.
The CGI utilised in this film, although extremely heavy, must be commended. Atlantis and its neighbouring kingdoms are imaginative, colourful paradises that are reminiscent of Avatar’s Pandora. Atlantis looks infinitely more appealing than anything we have on land. A colour palate of pinks, turquoise, and every shade of blue under the sun makes it feel as though these high-tech cities belong thousands of metres underwater. It is always difficult to take live action performances and thrust them into a completely digital world, but to the credit of the actors and VFX teams, they looked like they belonged there.
However, there were moments when it felt as though James Wan wasn’t sure want genre of film he was making. The sequence where Black Manta and his crew take over a nuclear submarine used techniques and music clearly drawn from horror. Whereas a lot of comedy was used to undercut the seriousness of the film, such as in the trident chamber when Aquaman suggests that he could have reintroduced water into the environment using an easier method. It is typical of superhero films to draw techniques and clichés from other genres but it definitely felt jarring to have moments that were so specifically of another genre periodically throughout the film. The comedy felt somewhat forced compared to Marvel’s slick moments in Guardians of The Galaxy or Avengers Assemble.
Yet it must be said that James Wan has done an excellent job in directing a film that reminds an audience why superhero films are so popular, steering away from the gritty attempts of Justice League and Suicide Squad, this film is about hope that we can do better. Hollywood is criticised constantly for their difficulty in reflecting the word as it is but Geoff Johns, Will Beall, and James Wan clearly did not want to make yet another film which distracts us from our real world problems. Environmentalism and Humanism are at the centre of this film, like Killmonger in Black Panther, Orm has a valid point. Arthur knows that, but a war would destroy more than it would save, and that is why he agrees to Mera’s plan.
Aquaman is an enjoyable, refreshing new direction for DC films but they are far from out of the woods. This film handles all of the tropes of the superhero genre extremely well but it is still a superhero story, for better or for worse, but an epic, imaginative ride that redefines Aquaman for the changing landscape of Hollywood film.
by Mia Garfield
Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has written about the female voice in cinema and negotiating the position of the female director. She has just finished her first short film ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied and every time she is asked about her favourite film she gives a different answer. Today her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864