Review of “Aquaman”

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is the product of two worlds: Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), princess of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, on the run from a loveless arranged marriage, and Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), the keeper of a lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. Tom finds Atlanna injured on the rocky shore during a storm, brings her in and tends her wounds. The two fall in love and produce a son, Arthur. The King of Atlantis sends troops to bring Atlanna back, but she defeats them in battle. To keep Tom and Arthur safe, Atlanna decides to return to Atlantis. Arthur shows the ability to communicate with fish. He can also fly through water. Atlanna’s advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) meets with Arthur and trains him in the ways of Atlanteans including battle tactics and how to use his unique abilities. Now an adult, Arthur, known in the media as Aquaman, intervenes in an attempt to take over a Russian nuclear sub by a group of high-tech pirates led by David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen, II) and his father Jesse (Michael Beach). During the fight, Arthur injures Jesse who is then trapped by a torpedo that has fallen from its rack. David begs Arthur to help free his father, but he refuses and Jesse dies. David vows revenge on Arthur. Meanwhile, Atlantean King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is Arthur’s half-brother, is plotting with King Nereus (Dolph Londgren) of the Xebel tribe, to wage war on the surface world by uniting the remaining seven kingdoms of the sea, taking the title Ocean Master, and attacking with their combined forces. Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) finds Arthur and encourages him to come to Atlantis and challenge Orm for the throne and prevent the war. Arthur isn’t interested in being a king, but changes his mind when Orm, using Atlantean technology, causes huge tsunami all around the world, wreaking massive damage and nearly killing Tom. Vulko tells Arthur and Mera about the legendary Trident of Atlan, the first king of Atlantis. The magical weapon will give Arthur the power to defeat Orm and unite the kingdoms of the seas. Orm has given David Kane Atlantean weapons that Kane modifies into a suit and takes the name Black Manta. Orm sends troops and Black Manta to kill Mera and Arthur to stop them from finding Atlan’s Trident.

One of the biggest complaints about the recent superhero films from DC is they are dour, overly serious and dark. None of those criticisms can possibly be levied at “Aquaman” from director James Wan. The sixth film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is bright, colorful, funny and filled with enough action sequences to keep fans happy. It is everything “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” weren’t.

The story of “Aquaman” is overly stuffed with secondary but connected plot lines. There is his missing mother, the creation of Black Manta, Orm’s plot with Nereus, Orm gathering support from the other kingdoms, the search for Atlan’s trident and a couple of more that would be spoilers. This bloats the running time to nearly two and a half hours. While there is more than enough to occupy your attention, it causes the film to feel scattershot and disjointed. With so many bits of story to service and characters to get on screen, “Aquaman” is constantly moving, never taking the time to let a moment breathe. While this makes the long run time feel somewhat shorter (still, plan your fluids), it also makes for a film that jumps from event to event and action scene to action scene, lessening the importance of each.

That said, “Aquaman” is quite the thrill ride. There are some amazing action scenes where Jason Momoa and Amber Heard (and/or their stunt/CGI doubles) get thrown around like rag dolls. There’s a foot chase scene with Mera across the rooftops of Sicily while Black Manta and Arthur battle it out in various locations. The choreography of these scenes, as well as the editing of the two together, is a masterclass for future filmmakers in how it should be done. The opening action scene on board a submarine is equally impressive for its use of the confined space. Arthur bangs bad guys off the walls and throws them down the halls. This scene also gives us an idea of Arthur’s powers as he is shot with a gun with no apparent effect and hit with an RPG that merely stuns him. He rips metal doors off and uses them as shields and weapons. All this after raising the sub up from the depths all by himself. Aquaman is a powerful hero with abilities in the water similar to Superman’s in the air.

He also can talk to fish. This often is mentioned as a joke since Aquaman is considered by some to be a secondary character in the DC universe. While it is an important part of his abilities, it isn’t the most important aspect of the character. Clearly, he’s gone through several changes in the various reboots of the comics character and aside from some cartoons like Super Friends, there wasn’t much done with Aquaman outside the pages of comic books. Now, with DC looking to emulate the movie success of Marvel, Aquaman has got to be toughened up to be considered on the same level as Superman and Batman. Casting Jason Momoa in the role was the first step in turning Aquaman into an A-list superhero.

Aquaman is as much Momoa as he is from the pages of the comic books. Both the actor and the character in the film like to have a good time with friends and family. Both enjoy a drink or 10. Both are gregarious (perhaps Aquaman less so) and enjoy laughing. Momoa is probably the best choice to play the king of the sea and he’s clearly enjoying his time in the role. He and Amber Heard have a chemistry that jumps off the screen. Even when they are just getting to know one another, and their relationship is more adversarial, there is an undeniable connection between the two. They are a team along the lines of Lois and Clark, and Bruce and Alfred. Separately, they are formidable, but together, they are unstoppable. It is a team-up I hope to see again on the big screen.

To say the design of “Aquaman” is eye-catching is an understatement. The cities at the bottom of the sea glow with a light like that of the deep-water fish you see in documentaries. The look of the advanced technology, the vehicles and the infrastructure of Atlantis and the other kingdoms is extraordinary. The sleek hydro-dynamic designs of the various subs mimic that of sea life like manta rays and dolphins. It is a world unlike any we’ve seen before, but it all makes sense.

The characters float in their underwater world in a believable way. Their images are slightly warped by the currents in the water and their hair moves in a way that is both realistic and extremely convenient as it never gets in their faces. While some of the digital de-ageing of some characters in flashback scenes is obvious, overall the digital effects throughout the film are excellent.

“Aquaman” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. We see the aftermath of the pirates massacring the crew of the sub. We see a couple of characters stabbed or impaled. Despite the killings there is very little blood. We also see characters hit be energy weapons and blown hundreds of feet. There is also violence against and between underwater monsters created for the movie. Foul language is scattered and mild.

DC doesn’t have the best track record for their movies since the beginning of the DCEU with “Man of Steel.” Their only critical and financial success has been “Wonder Woman,” while “Suicide Squad” made money despite being roasted by film critics. “Aquaman” is likely to be a success on both fronts as it has been a huge moneymaker in China where it was released two weeks before opening in North America. With good reviews and the probability of a successful box office run, “Aquaman” may join the rarified air of a critically liked and financially successful movie for Warner Bros. and DC. Perhaps those in charge will be willing to take chances on their superpowered characters, give directors the freedom to experiment and take chances in presenting them in a new medium. I hope “Aquaman” signals a change in the fortunes of DC’s slate of superhero movies. It would be nice if they could give Marvel a run for their money. After all, a high tide raises all boats.

“Aquaman” gets five stars.

This holiday week has two new releases. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Holmes and Watson—

Vice—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for movie, TV and streaming news available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Justice League”

The world continues to mourn the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) along with those that knew and loved him: His mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane) has lost the family farm and has moved to an apartment in Metropolis. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is only working on puff pieces for the Daily Planet newspaper. Batman (Ben Affleck) is troubled by his role in Superman’s death. He is also troubled by the appearance of winged creatures showing up in Gotham City. When he traps one against a wall it explodes leaving behind a pattern of three box shapes burned into the wall. Similar images show up in drawings made by convicted criminal and billionaire businessman Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) seized from him in prison. On Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, a box that’s been dormant for thousands of years begins humming and shaking. A tube of energy appears above it and through that tube comes Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), an alien destroyer of worlds. After a brief battle led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Steppenwolf seizes the box and along with his army of flying parademons leaves by another tube of energy. When Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), learns of the attack she seeks out Batman to tell him the history of Steppenwolf and how he tried to take over the Earth before but was beaten back by the Amazons, a sea-dwelling civilization called the Atlanteans, humans and the gods themselves. Diana and Bruce decide to look for other people with special abilities and form a team to defeat Steppenwolf and his parademons. They know of Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who is endowed with incredible speed that has earned him the nickname The Flash. There’s the water-dweller that aides a coastal village with food when their harbor is iced closed named Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) also called Aquaman. Finally, there’s the son of the head scientist at Star Labs that was thought to have been killed in an accident but has been merged with technology giving him the ability to hack into any computer system and more. He’s Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) but some call him Cyborg. Together this league of justice must overcome their differences and fears to work as a team to defeat Steppenwolf; but it may not be enough so a risky plan is put into place to add one final member.

If you haven’t heard about “Justice League” it must be because you’ve made an active effort to not hear any of the news this film generated. It wasn’t always good news: Director Zack Snyder left the film during post-production after the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon came in to do some sizable reshoots and the editing. While industry experts suggest Whedon’s reshoots account for about 20 percent of the film, the difference in style and tone make for a film that is inconsistent and could have used a bit more time spent with the newer characters to give them a better fleshed out reason to exist.

It’s ironic that “Justice League” could have been longer since one of the biggest criticisms of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was that it was far too long. This time I think Snyder and Whedon could have improved the film by showing us more about Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. While we get small nuggets about each it all feels like we are being pushed through an open house by a realtor that has somewhere else to be. We see bits and pieces but the rest goes by in a blur.

There are clear efforts to lighten the tone of “Justice League” over its DC predecessors. There are jokes approximately every three and a half minutes. While I don’t know that to be absolutely true, I get the feeling there were a great deal of focus groups and test audiences in the production of this film that guided the effort to put more laughs in the script. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen is the source of a number of these laughs but even the usually dour Batman provides a bit of levity from time to time. The Caped Crusader even delivers one of the film’s biggest laughs while connecting a scene from “BvS” to “Justice League.” You can see there was an effort but I appreciated it.

With a cast this large and a story that moves almost as fast as the Flash, there isn’t much of an opportunity for any actor to really stick out and despite some brief moments, no one does in “Justice League.” Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa shine brightest in their fleeting time. Momoa has a very entertaining scene where he gives his true feelings about what they are facing when it is shown why he’s being so honest. Miller is quirky as the Flash. Barry Allen is insecure about his place on the team and in the world, unsure of what he adds. Batman gives him so good advice that guides him in the right direction but that uneasiness with being a hero persists. While Miller and Momoa don’t have a great deal of screen time they do the best with what they are given. Ray Fisher is given very little to do other than look sullen. His character is not dealing well with becoming part man and part machine and only begins to grow into something interesting once he takes on the mantle of hero. Fisher’s Cyborg is underutilized and is difficult to fit into these other superheroes since his is the least known of the group. Perhaps there’s a better storyline in the future for Cyborg but his appearance in “Justice League” is poorly thought out.

The leaders of the group are clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. The pair takes turns being the grownup of the league. The fight against their foe together, bicker, nearly come to blows then realize they can never beat Steppenwolf if they don’t work together. There are no real surprises as it concerns the way the story flows or how Affleck’s and Gadot’s characters rise to the challenge of leading a team of strangers into a life and death battle. What is a surprise is how bored Affleck looks. Rumors have swirled for months that he wants out of playing Batman despite his protestations to the contrary. That talk has flared again just at the movie was released with Jake Gyllenhaal being the most mentioned name to replace Affleck. If Affleck’s performance in “Justice League” is any indication of his enthusiasm for the role then Gyllenhaal should show up for a bat suit fitting ASAP.

The story races through the fairly standard arc of the good guys being unable to defeat the bad guy on a couple of occasions, nearly coming apart due to some internal struggle then rallying to face the bad guy one more time. It is about as predictable as the return of Superman although how he’s brought back from the dead left me scratching my head. While I won’t give away any of the details, the scene at the end of “BvS” where the dirt on his casket is floating can be ignored. It’s like screenwriter Chris Terrio read the comic books where Superman returned after being killed by Doomsday and said, “You think that’s silly? Hold my beer.” The numerous moving parts of Superman’s revival are so Rube Goldberg-like in their complexity (not to mention dealing with alien technology and the physiology of an alien that’s been dead for quite some time) that even in the anything-goes world of super heroes it stretches credibility.

The weakest aspect of “Justice League” has to be the villain Steppenwolf. The issue isn’t just because he’s a CG character but that he isn’t terribly interesting. His mission is to destroy the world and we’ve seen that a million times and in better movies (*cough – The Avengers – cough*). Steppenwolf is nothing much more than a bully…granted he’s about nine feet tall, carries a glowing axe and commands an army of flying soldiers but still, he’s kind of dull as big bads go. Considering all the villains in the DC library of bad guys Steppenwolf is a dud.

“Justice League” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action. There are numerous battles with beings both human and non-human. There is no blood except for some green parademon blood. There is scattered mild foul language.

I really wanted to love “Justice League” as I was a DC Comics reader and subscriber in my youth. I was seriously invested in the lives of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and whoever else made up the rest of the league in the 1970’s. It was an escape from my humdrum life as a kid in school that desperately wanted to be a super powered hero. There’s still a little of that desire running through me despite my grown up knowledge that I’m not from Krypton, I’m not a billionaire, that getting struck by lightning won’t give me super speed, that I’m not the son of the Atlantean king, that cybernetic parts won’t let me hack into any computer system and that I’m not an Amazon princess (that last one really stings). Since I can’t be a superhero I want to be able to enjoy movies about them. “Justice League” isn’t awful but it isn’t the rapturous experience I wanted and that hurts me a little bit.

“Justice League” gets three stars out of five.

This holiday week sees two new movies arriving at theatres. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Coco—

Roman J. Israel, Esq.—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast on all the podcast platforms. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.