By Barry Neenan
On the 16th of November, 2012, I ran my mouth.
You gotta understand the context. Though The Avengers had successfully landed, revitalising the concept of superhero films, DC was lagging behind (as it still is lol). Christopher Nolan was officially finished with Batman, and only the earliest trailers for Man of Steel were released – indicating a dreary, grey direction based on the least interesting elements of Nolan’s Dark Knight saga.
Meanwhile, “““nerd culture””” had hit a growth spurt, and was awkwardly sizing out its new clothes. The worst limb of this flailing monster was The Big Bang Theory, a show I vaguely understand to somehow still exist. It wrung humour from presenting nerdish concepts in their most superficial forms, regurgitating opinions the mainstream market could easily digest. Opinions like how Aquaman sucks.
This stance was longstanding in comic book circles – while characters like Superman and Batman were critiqued for being too powerful, too victorious, Aquaman was generally perceived as, to use the common vernacular, ‘lame’. The superstrong, telepathic king of 75% of Earth had somehow become a underdog. And if there’s one thing that will make me belligerently support a character, it’s underdog status. Just ask Luigi.
Also Batman: The Brave and The Bold had come out and it had a really funny Aquaman.
And so, in this climate of DC finding its cinematic feet and popular nerd voices tearing into a character who didn’t really deserve it… well, here’s what went up on Facebook:
On December 14th, 2018, Aquaman hit theatres.
Now, I could’ve conceivably walked away from this. Dara remembered (as did Facebook), and he was holding me to it. But if I brushed this vow off, people would understand.
But I didn’t. I can’t quite say why. Perhaps it was a sense of honour, something that I – as someone who greatly enjoys lying for fun – don’t usually get to experience. Perhaps it’s a tribute to the dumb things we say when we’re sixteen. Perhaps I was drawn into it because, much like the film Aquaman (2018), it was an adventure. But odds are it’s the same reason I do anything; it was funny.
Here are my thoughts. I hope you get something out of them. I don’t think I did.
Surface impressions (one viewing)
Aquaman, as befitting a film starring Aquaman, demonstrates an acknowledgement of the absurdity of its subject matter. There is an aim here to emulate the successful Guardians of the Galaxy style, with self-awareness and funny jokes.
Aquaman has self-awareness.
How dearly I miss the outrageous Aquaman of Brave and the Bold. The humour here isn’t the worst – it’s not obnoxious, like a Disney sidekick can be – but it’s definitely not good. Y’know when you go to the movies, and the jokes are funnier because you’re surrounded by friends and strangers laughing too? I find the reverse satisfying too. When Aquaman throws out a joke and the theatre meets it with dead silence, it’s a vindictive kind of vindication. “Yeah,” methinks. “That joke wasn’t funny. I was correct not to laugh.”
That said, the film did get quite a few laughs out of me. Not from the ‘jokes’, god no, from the fight scenes. There’s some real nice choreography here. The biggest brightspot from my upcoming repeat visits (though it isn’t large) will be taking more in-depth notes on the motion here. It’s a good spectacle. The film also takes the opportunity to really slow down and savour the full visual potential of its concepts. In fairness, not every superhero film actually does that. I’m definitely willing to grant points there.
But the plot is thin and the characters boring and many of the designs laughable. The first time a dude in seahorse armour kicks down a door, my brain started playing the Power Rangers theme and would not stop. This problem also extends to the hands-down best part of the entire film, Black Manta. Great presence! Great style! Absolutely hilarious helmet. He looks like an alien from a kid’s show.
Oh, but he’s real good. Too good. He is better than Aquaman. Morally.
Normally, when I root for the villain, I am at least half-joking. Not here. Remember what I said earlier about the Luigis of the world? Yeah. Black Manta and his pirates are outclassed by the invulnerable hunk of beef who decimates them in an early scene, the intention of which was I suppose to make me like and root for said invulnerable hunk of beef.
The one place the script actually shines is Black Manta’s motivation, to the detriment of making me like Aquaman even in the slightest. (Correction from later viewings: ‘shines’ is a very, very strong word. But I like it, at least.) Black Manta’s arc is Aquaman’s fault, and the dude is perfectly justified in wanting to, quote, “gut [him] like the fish [he] is”. In fairness, Aquaman learns from that mistake, but applies that character development elsewhere. Black Manta doesn’t get a win because there is no justice in a DC movie.
Verdict: kinda pretty, but very boring and long. Not a film worth seeing twice.
Diving deeper (two viewings)
Y’know what? Y’know fuckin what? This movie actually has a theme. Good for it.
It’s a decent theme, too, the kind suited for a superhero film. That’s a lot better than no theme at all. And it’s better than six themes all wrestling each other for space. I still have no idea what Batman Kisses Superman was trying to say, despite how loud it was yelling. Aquaman is a lot more coherent than that. It almost works. But a) as I previously alluded to, it doesn’t completely balance the scales – come back in Aquaman 2 and maybe it will! – and b) it’s kinda hard to care about ~theme~ when the movie as a whole is sooooooo booooooooring.
That’s something you really need to understand, here. Any and all praise I give is in the context of me being very bored. I have the time to find distractions during the film because lord knows it doesn’t captivate me on a visceral level. For all the time it spends on its horrendous worldbuilding, none of the places depicted feel real. With the possible exception of the bar Aquaman and his dad get breakfast-Guinness, maybe, but even that’s ruined by painful writing.
Perfect example: here are my thoughts on Oceanmaster, our main antagonist. (Black Manta, spoilers, appears in about four scenes total.) I like Oceanmaster’s costume. There’s tasteful useful of purple and they managed to animate a metal helmet to have facial expressions without that looking completely awful. And the family dynamic thing isn’t the worst. Those are my opinions, having listened to this character drone and prance and scream throughout his lengthy screentime. I have found the two (2) things I like within that god-knows-how-many minutes of content.
In contrast, on this second viewing, I really came to despise Mera, our Standard Issue Woman. Not as a character, nor as a performance, but just as a – like – it’s 2018. Twenty fucking eighteen. (Now it’s later!) Can we please get a woman in a movie who doesn’t seem like the sole female character from a 2003 webcomic about video games?! If you tasked me with creating the most cookie-cutter Hollywood Woman, hitting as many lazy tropes as possible, Mera is exactly what I would produce. Her outfit includes a laughably low neckline and highheels, fucking highheels, for maximum grace in the fucking ocean. She’s serious and hypercompetent, only veering into gentle sarcasm as Aquaman jokes and japes his way to saving the world, as per his Heroic Destiny that she is obligated to assist but obviously could not do herself. Jesus Christ. This was all background noise on the first viewing, but now I can see that. It’s just all at the default setting, because of course it is.
None of these characters are memorable – even, if I’m being perfectly honest, my fave, Black Manta. Aquaman himself is alright, I guess, but like the locations, he doesn’t seem real. Momoa’s drunken musclebound ruffian starts solving fucking National Treasure style riddles halfway through. “How do you know this stuff?” Mera asks, rightfully, once Aquaman begins confidently reciting who among those honoured in a Sicilian ruin were and were not kings. “My dad made sure I knew my history,” he replies, as though that’s a valid answer from a screenwriting perspective. This knowledge was never hinted at before and obviously never comes up again. I consider myself pretty familiar with history, and I can’t even spell Sippy-oh.
And how does this puzzle make sense, anyway?! This breadcrumb trail was left In Ancient Times, just after the fall of the mythical Atlantis, and it hinges on a perfectly just-about-ruined statue of a dude who only died in the late 8th century?!
And fucking – what the hell is the name of Willem Dafoe’s character? Orko? Volko? Falco? Every single person just mumbles his name, which is already a nonsense word. This movie sucks.
Verdict: vaguely competent ideas buried under several layers of stupid. this movie sucks
Darkest depths (three viewings)
I hate this movie.
I hate that it opens with the title character reciting a Jules Verne quote, despite the fact Momoa’s Aquaman strikes me as a fellow who very plausibly never learned to read.
I hate how utterly, painfully unfunny it is. (I change my mind. The humour is the worst.) I hate every time the movie winds up for a joke you can see coming a mile away, and I hate when it clunks to a stop so everybody can sit there and not laugh. I hate that studio executives think that comedy can just be injected into a movie by decree.
I hate the Atlantean’s inherent, genetic superiority over regular humans. I hate this superiority goes unexplained beyond “long ago, we were very smart”. I hate that our protagonist gained his powers, including the ones that are so super special awesome they make him objectively better than even the other wet Ubermensch, because he was born really good. Characters who are just born into power are always the best and most interesting.
I hate that these enlightened superhuman Atlanteans, who are just so much more advanced than us dumbass surface dwellers, at no point question how fucking stupid monarchy is as a form of government. I hate that so much of the story hinges on the idea of bloodline equating to political legitimacy, because American writers and audiences have no interaction with monarchs except as the vague villain in their favourite bedtime story, George Washington Invents Freedom. I hate that Aquaman becomes king at the end – spoilers – and after he himself rightfully points out over and over how inexperienced he would be, the film implies he’ll be juuuuuuuuust fiiiiiiiiine. I hate that his first and last decree isn’t to absolve the monarchy and institute a full representative democracy.
I hate that Aquaman’s establishing character moment is beating the everloving shit out of aesthetically-cool pirates who have no hope whatsoever of harming him. I hate that there is a far more interesting (if underwritten) character in this film in the form of Black Manta, just cool enough for me to like him and root for him before the bloated script whisks him away from view.
I hate that this film is doing well. I hate that it’s on track to be the highest grossing DC film thus far, and I hate that critical consensus easily places it as the second best of the entire set – a pitifully easy achievement when only one (1) DC movie, Wonder Woman, has been in any way worthwhile. The one upside of this success is that it had a long run time, allowing me to grab a belated third viewing. I would have been very upset if I saw this film twice but failed to absolve my oath.
And most of all… I hate the part where they arrive at the Sahara and the soundtrack is some boring, shitty rapper doing some boring, shitty rap about how great he is, the kind of music that lulls you into a deadened state from how stale and unoriginal it is, and then bam! The hook is some idiot doing an awful cover of Toto’s Africa. Jesus fucking Christ. Hands down the worst part of an already terrible film. Why must you test me like this, Aquaman? Why?
Verdict: I hate this movie, and Aquaman, and Jason Momoa, in that approximate order. Please end my life.
Thanks to the brothers Jones, Gleeson, Gleeson and Jones for accompanying me on this momentous pilgrimage. Thanks also to Misters Grant and Burn for discussing my decision in a very optimistic light on a recent episode of the Translation Lost podcast.
Mixed feelings to Dara Eaton for doing both of those things but also holding me to my terrible word in the first place.
I’m going to towel off now and drink some hot chocolate.