2/10 Last year, The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale love story about banging a frog person, won best picture, and I warned at the time to be ready for an influx of movies about sexy frog people.
Now, almost a year to the day after Shape of Water’s wide release, Warner Bros. has released Aquaman, its superhero spin on the classic frog person myth, starring Jason Momoa as the most conventionally sexy frog person that ever croaked. As with most movies crimping off an Oscar winner, Aquaman is pretty awful.
Sometime after the events of Justice League, or maybe before, who knows or cares, Arthur Curry (Momoa), the bastard son of Queen Atlanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and a humble lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), operates as an aquatic superhero off the coast of Maine. Though Curry is Atlanna’s firstborn and the rightful king, he forswore Atlantis years ago when he learned the previous king executed Atlanna for having sex with a non-frog person, and the kingdom has passed to his half-brother, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson).
Mera (Amber Heard), a highborn frog person, alerts Curry to Orn’s plan to make war on the surface world as retaliation for all the pollution. Curry must claim the kingdom to prevent the war, but his only way of doing so is to find and wield the Trident of Atlan, the long-lost weapon of the first king.
It feels like I’m saying this about almost every big-budget movie that comes out – Aquaman looks terrible. This movie cost $160 million, and that’s reasonable enough for something set underwater that legitimately requires a majority of its sets to be done with some kind of rear-screen projection, but the projection itself is really sloppy.
The frog people in this movie are all super swimmers. Curry will do a butterfly stroke, and send out a massive shockwave of water behind him as he surges forward, but that shockwave will come a split second before or after he actually completes the stroke. It’s little things like that. Animators consistently miss on the details that are crucial in selling this sort of special effect.
Visuals were also noticeably poor on dry land, for many of the same reasons – see the Black Manta fight scene, which featured prominently in trailers, for a terrestrial example of how to do green screen horrendously.
It doesn’t help that director James Wan and company took entirely the wrong approach when it came to art design and fight choreography. When given the opportunity to create an underwater world, they went with this space-age aesthetic that looks less like an ancient underwater kingdom and more like a series of medical research facilities. Nobody seems to have put the work in to make the sets feel like places that have been lived-in for thousands of years, or the work to make them feel truly pristine as if that were the full intent. Again, it’s crucial details that are missing here.
“Master filmmaker” James Wan has made his name over the years with the Insidious and Conjuring series, first as a director and then as a producer. I absolutely can not stand these movies. They are lazy, boring, completely predictable amalgamations of standard horror movie tropes that successfully get viewers to jump and are then rinsed and repeated. I was fascinated to see how he would handle the completely different action-adventure genre, but he’s taken largely the same approach – find techniques that have been popular in the recent past that can be easily repeated without putting much thought into them, and smash together. This manifests most clearly in Aquaman’s obnoxious, deliberately confusing fight scenes, as Wan explained personally to The New York Times-
No James Wan, having magma in the background doesn’t even begin to make that scene feel oriented.
All of the movie’s action scenes, most of which take place above water, are like that, edited with the same speed-up slow-down yo-yoing everybody thought was so cool when it debuted in 300 but is exhausting now and shot with the same wildly swinging camera, hopping around like a frog person on crack in a way that no real camera could ever move.
While the passively bad elements in regrettable design philosophy and lazy execution dominate the viewing experience, actively bad ones in the script pad the runtime and add a degree of gleeful silliness, which is not unwelcome. There are a number of elements that lift right out, particularly the secondary antagonist in David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and the love story between Curry and Mera.
The script’s confusion may be related to its origin as two separate scripts way back in 2014 – producers said they would only go with the stronger script, but as everything is in the DCEU, Aquaman is clearly a bastardized combination of more than one thing. While this is indicated by the confused screenplay, it’s made most obvious by the fact that the movie’s main plot is a haphazard expansion of Geoff Johns’ run with the character. Johns was promoted as DC’s chief creative officer in 2016 and given dominion over its movies, well after these scripts would have been written, and he’s given a story credit on the final product. The entire DCEU has been reworking itself around Johns’ comic book runs, especially the Flash movie that was scheduled to release in March 2018 but has been pushed all the way back to 2021, and will be based on Johns’ Flashpoint story arc.
Kane adds a lot to the movie as a super-powered mercenary hunting Curry as he searches for the trident, but he gets this whole side-plot where he blames Curry for his father’s death, and they spend time setting up a sequel with stuff that could just as easily be done off-screen.
The subplot with Mera is outright goofy in its introduction and handling. All of a sudden, halfway through the movie, entirely out of nowhere, we get a bunch of cartoonish glamour shots of Mera with rom-com music overhead. It reminds me starkly of the Hobbit love triangle, which felt out of nowhere because the whole thing was thought up well after production. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the same was true for Mera in Aquaman.
Will Aquaman save the DCEU? Its critical reception has been decent, though the serious dwindling of its Rotten Tomatoes score is cause for concern, and it’s already passed Justice League at the global box office. As with Justice League, the consensus opinion seems to be “At least it isn’t Batman v. Superman,” and if that’s the standard these movies are held to now, yeah, pretty much anything can save the DCEU – as long as it actually survives the trip to theaters, which is not a guarantee with this studio.
What would a better point of reference be? Maybe it isn’t exactly fair to compare Aquaman to something like The Shape of Water, something with entirely different motivations behind it, but we go to see movies for ultimately the same reason – to admire the art. Aquaman has very little art to it, and what’s there isn’t well made. I don’t think movies should get a free pass just because there are worse ones out there, and I do think it’s fair to expect a high quality work of art every time you go to the theater.
Aquaman was never going to be very good given the creative personnel involved and the apparent laziness of the animators carrying out their vision, but that doesn’t mean it deserves praise for being vaguely competent.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.