If you’re not familiar with DC Comics and their resident fish-friend the movie acts as a pretty good introduction. It more or less follows the plot of the New 52 reboot that Geoff Johns penned in 2011. However I have to say that if you’re familiar with the Aquaman from Batman: The Brave and The Bold then I think Jason Momoa has way more in common with him than than the brooding Arthur Curry from the comics.
The first time we get to see Aquaman aquaman-ing around is when he stops a crew of pirates who have hijacked a submarine. For seemingly no reason at all we get to see a heartfelt exchange between two murderous men, as they exchange heirloom weaponry and family folklore. For nerds in the know this is our cue that the young gentleman is about to become Black Manta…after Arthur kills his dad.
As expected Arthur fights future Black Manta and his dad, and when Black Manta pleads with Arthur to save his dad, he declines saying that they’ve “killed innocents” so now they can ask the ocean for mercy. Nice way to hold Aquaman accountable for death without having him actually kill the dude.
This scene also contrasts with the film’s ongoing subtle attempts at subversion of toxic masculinity tropes. Right after we see Arthur leave a man to die, he heads to the bar to drink with his dad. A group of bruiser looking blokes come up to him asking if he’s the “fish boy from the TV” and we prepare ourselves for a rousing bar fight. Instead they politely ask to take selfies with him from their pink, glittery phone and we see a montage of them all becoming good friends and drinking together. It’s a nice moment that serves to remind us that we aren’t watching another Batman origin story, or typical Snyder-fest.
However this subversion of masculinity doesn’t last long, since the minute we’re in Atlantis we more or less get to see two men participate in the ultimate dick measuring contest as they bat at each other with tridents, arguing about which one is superior and who can be the King of all the things.
Interestingly, Momoa’s casual charm and confidence are actually what save the film from becoming two fish dudes measuring dinner forks in exchange for fancy hats and the keys to mum’s kingdom. Momoa isn’t the Arthur Curry of the comics – he’s not another brooding, orphaned white boy carrying a chip on his shoulder. Instead he’s a mixed race, affable lad who just doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. When we see Orm, he is every inch the privileged, trust fund, white guy that feels entitled to everything he hasn’t already been handed. So when they do face off, it does have a nice Bruce Springsteen overtone to it, rather than the usual paint-by-numbers of two white men who can’t talk about their feelings.
Even when Orm literally breaks Arthur’s phallic motif in half, necessitating his rescue by Mera, it’s Momoa’s fresh take on Arthur that prevents it from going too far down an emasculation metaphor. Like Steve Trevor before him, he never makes us feel like Mera is a threat to his identity. He has no issue with her leading the way, with her calling the shots, and rather than undermining her he just cheerfully gives her shit.
Having said that though, it would have been nice to have more of Mera’s origin. While it was nice to see the inclusion of Black Manta in the film, both from a nerd perspective and a diversity perspective, by the end I couldn’t help but feel like all of his scenes could have been sacrificed for more of Mera.
When she shows up at Arthur’s drinking hole telling him he needs to save the kingdom, we don’t actually know who the fuck she is, what her powers are, or what her motivations are. The fact that she’s facing the same fate as Arthur’s mum (marrying someone she doesn’t want to) could have been a really compelling plot point that might have helped her and Arthur relate to each other earlier. Mera comes from the kingdom of Xebel, which we don’t actually see at any point, so we don’t have a feel for how much she cares about her nation or her people when she starts talking about ‘duty’ and whatnot.
Mera does get some good screen time, and the fact that she spends at least half of it rescuing Arthur feels appropriate for both their characters. However if you’re a Disney fan at all, it’s basically impossible to see her as anything other than The Little Mera-Maid. Her fish-out-of-water plot points along with her Ariel-red locks are every bit as adorable as they are bordering on a cease-and-desist from the House of Mouse. Combined with the scene where the octopus is playing the drums, it kind of makes you feel sad that Sebastian doesn’t show up at some point to tell us all how it’s better, down where it’s wetter.
Some of the films best moments are during Arthur and Mera’s adventures to the Sahara and later Sicily – it’s reminiscent of Romancing the Stone, with rooftop chases and sand dune cities. However this is representative of the movie’s larger problem; it doesn’t know what it’s trying to be. While parts of it give
you adventurous Indiana Jones vibes, the scenes in the ocean kingdoms feel incredibly science-fiction fuelled with laser cannons and underwater spaceships that look like Apple Stores. It’s only when Arthur and Mera reach the Trench that we get to see director James Wan finally in his element with a horror motif that reminds you how much more the movie could have done with the ocean world. Even in relation to the soundtrack, the Trench gives us an atmospheric piece that reignites our trepidation about being underwater for the first time since the film began. But this is a motif could have been used all the way through the film – giving each Kingdom its own unique feeling.
Despite there being seven ocean kingdoms referenced in the film, we’re never left with a real sense of what each of them are. The seven kingdoms are all supposedly descended from the original occupants of Atlantis (although fuck knows how they managed to ‘evolve’ when it looked like the majority of them were getting killed as Atlantis sunk).
We get to see a little of the Kingdom of the Fishermen, which is where the people who evolved more into fish live. It’s clearly an allegory for Ancient Athens (where the myth of Atlantis originated) since Orm complains about all their pudgy philosophers and artists and how they’re not warlike enough. We see The Brine in the final battle scene, but only really their people and army, not so much their city – and the whole thing basically comes down to “they’re crustaceans…look, lot’s of crab shells and stuff.”
If you compare the world building of Aquaman to that of Black Panther, you can’t help but feel disappointed at the missed opportunities. Each of the kingdoms could easily have honoured different cultures, mythologies, or ecosystems, but instead it ended up feeling the way many DC films do – rushed through, and with more thought given to explosions than well done exposition.
Aquaman isn’t a bad film. As far as DC offerings go, it’s definitely one of the better ones. And it’s certainly not fair to compare Warner Brothers offerings to what Disney is producing for Marvel since the production resources are simply not in the same ballpark. It’s a solid adventure film that genuinely does credit to a character who for so long has been the butt of every joke about the Justice League. I can’t wait to see more of both Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, I only hope that future films have the opportunity to focus more on what they actually want to be, rather than throwing in seven seas and the kitchen sink.
Aquaman is in cinemas now.