DC/Warner Bros.’s latest superhero movie, Aquaman, manages the impressive trick of being both too long and too short. Before you get to the end of it, you’ll have the feeling that you’ve been tricked into starting an epic series of novels, yet there’s also an ongoing feeling that the amount of story it’s trying to fit in exceeds the amount of minutes it’s prepared to devote to it.
(Spoilers beyond this point, but not too many.)
To be clear (and one needs to be when it comes to the DC superhero movies), Aquaman is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s a fun romp that sits safely is second place behind Wonder Woman in the DC superhero quality rankings. Yet much like the culinary delight mentioned in the title of this piece, while it may be satisfying if you like that sort of thing, I couldn’t help but wish that a little more judiciousness had been applied when selecting what went into it.
The throughline of the film’s story is relatively straightforward: Atlantis is threatening war on the surface world, and Arthur Curry (Aquaman, as essayed by Jason Momoa and his amazing abs), must claim the throne in order to forestall the impending devastation. In-universe, this takes place after Justice League, but the references to that film are few and far between. Which is for the best, as there’s a lot of world-building that the viewer has to pick up on as the movie goes on.
Trying to boil down the amount of storytelling that this movie goes for into a review is somewhat pointless: the film has already done the boiling down itself. The hero’s origin story (as the son of an Atlantean queen and a lighthouse keeper) is relegated to flashbacks, while the film spends more time on the origins of Atlantis and its seven constituent kingdoms (Atlantis, Xebel, the Brine, the Fishermen, the Deserters, the Trench, and one other I can’t remember, but it’s okay as they don’t appear in this film) and paying a visit to each one.
All of this work to create a diverse undersea world has a great impact on the visual side, with Atlantis itself and the other undersea kingdoms as highlights. An encounter with the monstrous Trench provides the best visual of the movie, and you can tell that director James Wan was enjoying himself. However, all the rushing from place to place doesn’t grant the story any gravitas, and by the time the final battle takes place in the kingdom of the Brine, you’d be hard put to look past the debt that Aquaman owes to The Lord of the Rings. They even have John Rhys Davies, Gimli himself, as the voice of the Brine king.
The problem here is that The Lord of the Rings was three movies, and all of its incident was spread out enough to breathe and gather momentum. Aquaman kicks into motion after a tsunami and doesn’t pause for breath after that. In his hunt for the magical Trident of Deus Ex Machina (sorry, of Atlan), he visits Atlantis and gets into a fight with his half brother, goes on an Indiana Jones-esque caper across the globe, dives into the deep kingdom of the Trench, then returns for the final battle and confrontation. The running time is 143 minutes, but it feels both longer and too short.
For the most part, Momoa carries the film well. His Aquaman is a joyful bruiser, who enjoys the fighting and adventure under a paper-thin crusty exterior. He’s assisted by a more than solid supporting cast: Amber Heard as princess of Xebel Mera, who’s co-lead for a good chunk of the film, and Nicole Kidman as his mother, whose death at the hands of the Atlanteans is the main block to the story’s progression for the first third. You also have Dolph Lundgren and Willem Dafoe doing solid work, and a utterly unexpected Julie Andrews cameo. Less successful is Patrick Wilson as Aquaman’s half-brother Orm, who comes across as more petulant than potent.
All the pieces for a solid movie are there, then, but the connections between them are never given the time needed to deepen. The romance between Aquaman and Mera in particular comes across as perfunctory—they end up together because that’s what co-leads in an adventure movie do, and because that’s what the characters do in the comics. Mera too has connections to Wilson’s Orm and Lundgren’s Nereus, but she gets no more than a scene or two with either of them.
The way that the movie rushes through its riches is best seen in the subplot featuring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta. Starting out as a pirate who loses his father to a moment of callous vindictiveness from the hero, he gets involved with Atlantis and serves as a sub-boss in terms of the plot. All the elements are there for a decent villain, but the film rushes him into action and disposes of him just as quickly (albeit with a mid-credits scene setting him up for a sequel). There is some small payoff with the hero realising that he created a nemesis for himself, but it feels perfunctory where it should resonate.
Part of this might come from the travails that the DC superhero movies have suffered so far. With all of the mis-steps and creative changes that the effort to match Marvel and its movie universe has suffered, each DC film has a weight of expectation on its head. Aquaman aims to be an epic adventure movie, full of strange new places to explore and end-of-the-world threats to stop. It wants to match Star Wars, but it wants to do it in one movie. It should have been three.
The initial encounter with Atlantis and revelation of Arthur’s heritage could have formed the first film, the hunt for the trident the second. The final film could have been the build to the final battle and confrontation. That might have given all of the different plot lines space to breathe, and the various relationships would have had time to develop. Even committing to three movies wouldn’t have been necessary—just accepting that a world-ending scenario isn’t always necessary in a superhero movie.
But hypotheticals on what could have been don’t serve as a review. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is a packed adventure movie that doesn’t hit as hard or entertain as well as it should have done. Its good moments, including a seemingly incipient bar brawl that turns out to be fans seeking a selfie with their hero, are signs that the people behind this were aiming higher than they reached, and they may be enough to engender goodwill among viewers. Those hoping for a diverting slice of superhero fare may find what they’re looking for here, but equally, two hours in, you might find yourself wondering why it’s not over already.