Beyond the realm of critical consideration
There are a few moments in Aquaman (dir. James Wan) that feel monumental. They are cinematic moments so beyond the realm of reasonability, so ludicrously unconcerned with reputation and tonal consistency, that I couldn’t comprehend my own response. One takes place when the evil King of Atlantis Orm (Patrick Stewart) suddenly bellows, ‘You can call me OCEAN MASTER!’ and another occurs when scorned pirate Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) crashes down into Sicily in his new armour, looking like a Power Rangers villain that still needed a few redesigns. These moments are so achingly stupid and yet so undeniably awesome, the only appropriate response is to laugh at the cinema screen’s abyss. They’re sublime, not in the Romantics’ sense of the beautiful and terrifying, but in the Hollywood blockbuster sense of the ludicrous and epic.
Watching the movie, drowning in its near two and a half hour runtime and its phantasmagoric tumult of special effects, I wondered about some of the decisions made by the team behind Aquaman. I have no affiliation with the comics, although an old friend is an avowed Aquaman fanatic and clued me into the series’ campy tone. Was it to pay homage to the source material, or is it because, after a string of critical flops and a waning reputation, DC Films is simply going overboard and making whatever the hell they want, however they want? We live in a strange time for movies anyway, where a B-movie’s budget costs hundreds of millions and a movie can underperform at the box-office as long as it promises to get things right in the inevitable sequel. Nowhere do these weird times seem more appropriately represented than in Aquaman.
Jason Mamoa plays Arthur Curry/Aquaman, and his performance is the first indication of the movie’s irreverence. The part calls for a wisecracking regular dudebro who sinks piss with Dad (Temuera Morrison) and whines about being appointed King of Atlantis, so Mamoa takes this acting challenge and approaches it as, ‘No effort required’.
We first see him board a submarine overtaken by pirates and when he arrives, all back-tattoo during a slow-turn around, the look on his face seems to say, ‘Can you believe they’re paying me for this?’ When he rescues the captive Russians, he quips about being late for happy hour, something that seems to reflect Mamoa’s presence on set.
Eventually Arthur is approached by Mera (Amber Heard), a blood red-headed member of Atlantis royalty who calls for Arthur, the son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) to return to Atlantis and take the throne from his brother Orm. Stewart, who’s worked with Wan several times and seems game to play the fool when the script calls for it (recall his Elvis cover in The Conjuring 2), ramps up the camp but it never feels natural. Mamoa may be phoning it in, but he phones it in with such confident grace that you believe Aquaman really ought to be the DC universe’s resident hungover hero.
Mera and Aquaman embark upon a quest to retrieve a trident that will reportedly fix everything if Aquaman proves he can wield it. This leads them to the Sahara Desert, to Sicily and to a mysterious island that looks like a neglected part of the Jurassic Park universe. The two heroes build on their chemistry and flirt their way to an on-the-battlefield makeout, however the five-man-strong screenplay can find very little to do with Heard’s character. She mostly side-eyes Curry when he’s playing the fool and wide-eyes the wonders of our surface world. As for their dialogue, there’s only so much you can do with quips and forced exposition.
When I wasn’t reeling from the movie’s dunderheaded approach to character creation and natural dialogue, I was dazzled, even floored, by the swooping action scenes underwater and above. Wan loves a balletic long take, spinning around brawling characters like he’s conducting a symphony. He manages to film one-on-one fight scenes that celebrate the choreography and big battle scenes that highlight the absurdity. A busy battle between crab-like characters and the Atlanteans has Aquaman rear up from the seabed on a giant, Lovecraftian mega-crab. It’s as delightfully foolish as it sounds, but it maintains the rollercoaster thrill these superhero movies clamour for.
Watching Aquaman caused me to question my critical faculties. If there are genuinely cinematic displays of dazzling special effects that arrest one’s attention and dispel any sense of time and place, does it matter that the rest of the movie is so infuriatingly dumb? It probably does, but I wouldn’t’ve said that while I was watching it.