Shortly after my screening of Aquaman I was chatting with someone who was considering going to see it. ‘I’m not too sure yet, people have told me it’s cringy.’
‘I wouldn’t say “cringy”,’ I replied, ‘but it’s definitely silly.’
I don’t like cringy as a criticism anymore. When I first started spending time on reddit, I was all into those communities that would slam people for acting out of the ordinary. As I matured I realised that it’s a reductive way to look at the world — shorthand for ‘Uncool and I don’t like it.’ It’s a reactionary posture, one which says far more about the person throwing it out than the thing they’re criticising. They’d rather immediately discard it than interrogate the art and determine the source of their discomfort.
I think it might be because in an environment where every film seems to be making some desperate play for appeal to an audience Aquaman definantly doesn’t. For as catastrophic as the DC films have been so far, they’ve generally done a pretty good job at boiling themselves down to easy descriptors. We all remember how Suicide Squad found itself recut to find the edgyness promised in those early trailers. Justice League somehow lost an hour, and gained an additional thirty minutes in order to turn it into — well whatever they decided it had to be.
This film isn’t interested in doing that. It’s content to be part globetrotting adventure serial, part origin story, part undersea politicking. Plus, in addition to the main bad guy there’s also a slightly superfluous kinda related bad guy who gets his fifteen minutes. And in addition to the people of Atlantis there’s a good half dozen other undersea communities who apparently have their own shit going on in the sidelines.
Aquaman has been a joke for a long time. Snyder and Whedon tried to reform his image by making him burly and speak entirely in catchphrases. James Wan apparently has the confidence to stare you dead in the eye and request that you take it all seriously. Evil king of the ocean wanting to destroy the surface world? Rational. Secret portal in the Mariana Trench to the Earth’s final hidden ocean (the planet core)? Absolutely. A shady talking kraken voiced by Julie Andrews? Why-ever not? It’s a trip. Spectacular and stupid.
The bits which focus on my man himself are awful fun. That might be because I want Jason Momoa to hug me for a long time, I just think he’d be good at it, but also because he’s imbued here with an irrepressible puppy-dog energy. Early on he’s at a pub, day drinking with his dad and he tries to act cool when approached by his fans.(yes, he has fans) but finds it impossible to keep up the gruff demeanour.
The movie tells us he’s conflicted, his Atlantean mother was reclaimed from his human father when he was a child and has never returned, he wants nothing to do with the place, but she happened to be the queen and that makes him king by birth, so the only one able to prevent the villainous pretender to the throne from conducting his dastardly plan. That’s a fifteen minute issue though because this film is too densely plotted to give anything sufficient time. Which is a relief when we keep cutting back to the bad guys.
Patrick Wilson, a regular James Wan collaborator, is saddled with the laborious task of conducting a variety of conference scenes to depict the building of an army. It’s fairly rote, though propelled by the expansive design sensibility that seems him bedecked in medieval ceremonial armour while riding a giant seahorse mount up to a Grecian sunken ruin. Wilson can do more than this, especially when accompanied by a equally underutilised Willem Dafoe and Dolph Lundgren. It’s audacious, daring the audience to laugh.
Meanwhile our hero and Amber Heard — playing Mara, princess of the jellyfish kingdom, — are bouncing around the world trying to find the legendary trident of King Atlan, because those legends say that only the true heir may wield it and so it’s his best path to the throne, from which he may call an end to the war. Their end plays out like Spielberg’s Tintin movie, Heard is the Tintin analogue — spry and knowledgeable — which makes Aquaman Captain Haddock. Which like, he totally is.
Of course they spend the whole trip being pitted against the local colour, while also being hounded by the evil henchmen, headed up by that secondary bad guy mentioned earlier: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta. He’s a human so it makes sense for him to be on land, blessed relief as that’s where the action works best. Underwater the submarines move like spaceships, which makes sense to the eye, but they’ve not really got a solid hang on how humans should move. Like say, Jupiter Ascending we’re presented a world which exhibits gloriously dynamic possibilities but which finds itself oddly constrained by a cinematic language that has no place for them.
But even despite that, it manages to be disparate and bonkers. I’ve not even talked really about Nicole Kidman or Temuera Morrison here. Suffice it to say that the majority of the movie kept me onboard because of the strength of the first five minutes of screentime dedicated to them (even with all the digital de-aging shit applied). After that, it can be as goofy and uncool as it likes. It’s earned it after all: it’s Aquaman.
Aquaman is currently screening in UK cinemas.