The superhero genre is not, in fact, a genre. Adapting comics to film has become a billion-dollar industry in the past decade, and the movies comprising that industry have certainly been typified by a familiar formula. Marvel movies are with few exceptions fun but mostly mindless. DC movies are with few exceptions Marvel movies with all the fun wrung out. Those exceptions usually end up being the best of the bunch, but the point is that the “superhero genre” — while technically an applicable term for things grouped by subject matter — is more a “superhero formula” applied across genres. There’s action-thriller, action-comedy, action-adventure, sci-fi action…heck, when’s someone gonna make a superhero rom-com or a superhero road trip flick? Or a super-workplace melodrama devoid of any action whatsoever?
That ain’t Aquaman, an action movie that feels like someone took three of the other action movies we just described and crammed them into one package. Starring Jason Momoa as himself, Aquaman is DC’s most eye-popping blockbuster in quite some time, more reliant on world-building and flashy set-pieces than Wonder Woman or the feeble Justice League, which is sort of saying something. By and large this world-building is thorough and these set-pieces are inventive. If you’re sensing a big huge HOWEVER looming on the horizon, then this review is evidently as predictable as Aquaman.
The film might be called colorful if the plotting weren’t so paint-by-numbers, a frustrating distraction from the visual prowess on display. The screenplay is stuffed with stupendously flat dialogue and an impressive ratio of Scenes Ending In Explosions to just Regular Scenes (we’re talking like 3:1). We’d be remiss to gloss over the production design and costuming, which does at times invoke a giggle or two but is vastly more bold and purposeful than that of Aquaman‘s peers. There are rich locations, from the expanse of Atlantis to the steep architecture of Sicily to the oily black of the mysterious Trench.
…but we’d also be remiss to gloss over this shit:
If the genre of Aquaman is “action fantasy” — and it is — then probably no one was pretending this thing was going to be Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or on par with any other “serious” fantasy. This is not a point against Aquaman, so long as the movie remembers that its center is a cartoonishly jacked dude who talks to fish. The risk with this particular brand of goofy fantasy taken too seriously leads to drivel like Gods of Egypt or John Carter. Aquaman is shooting just slightly higher, aspiring to join ranks with Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mummy, even — gasp! — The Phantom in allowing an utterly naïve main character run amok without worrying that we’ll just laugh at him. Momoa, as usual, doesn’t seem to give a swashbuckling shit about any of this. Mah man!
Still, excepting a few action scenes and a few visual flourishes, there’s nothing at all to surprise you in Aquaman. Amidst the bottomless exposition are four or five footnotes reminding us that Arthur’s mother is dead, which, of course, essentially guarantees she’s not. The dialogue continues to hit those familiar notes with frustrating prevalence, with Arthur’s Trust me, I’m no king shtick feeling especially tired. And again, a majority of the dialogue either descends into a gag about Arthur’s heritage or is just straight-up interrupted by something blowing up, as if bombs are automatically detonating anywhere people are trying to just talk for a minute. Imagine a novel in which every single chapter ends with an explosion or with a joke undermining the intelligence of the characters. Cowabunga!
So while Momoa and occasionally James Wan (director and co-writer) realize the need to resist playing it straight, that memo clearly never reached anyone else. Take Orm, the main villain played by Patrick Wilson, a character who enjoys yelling. Patrick Wilson isn’t good at yelling. Orm spends half his time screaming highly-specific phrases like ATLANTEANS! and THE RING OF FIRE! and OCEANMASTER! and the other half sneering a bunch of lines you’ve heard in other movies, like “I’m not here to start a war — war has already begun.” Wilson, nobly steadfast in the second season of Fargo and well cast as Dan Dreiberg in Watchmen, is a good actor. But this antagonist wasn’t written for a good actor, frankly, and really just needs a presence loud enough to measure up to Momoa’s easy bombast. Wilson the Actor fails.
At the end of the day, this kind of discordance between the willingly goofy Aquaman and the Aquaman that thinks it’s Lawrence of Arabia makes the entire affair feel forced. It doles out moments so tonally nebulous you have no idea whether you’re supposed to laugh or be inspired (like Willem Dafoe saying “Down here, you’re out of your element — LITERALLY!”); meanwhile, the unique visuals feel lashed to the tired old superhero formula. If there’s one thing to take away from Aquaman, though, it’s that being out of your element is the only way to become who you really — oh shit, watch out for that explosion!