The running joke in Entourage was that Aquaman was such an unfilmable superhero in reality that only in the show’s alternate world of Hollywood could it work. If the new DC Comic movie–yes, now a reality–is any indication, Entourage was right.
In fairness, James Wan (The Conjuring, Furious 7) does what he can, embracing all the ludicrous aspects of the underwater hero with a big octopus hug, throwing reason and convention and sanity to the tide in lieu of massive CGI spectacle full of sharks with frikkin’ laser beams attached to their heads, giant warrior seahorses, and crab people that are literally a walking STD joke.
Aquaman is stupid through and through, and as eye-rolling as much of it is, it’s tolerable.
What isn’t tolerable? Aquaman just isn’t well made.
If you’re making a nearly two-and-a-half-hour comic book movie (why, God, why?), you’re essentially committing to making a two-and-a-half-hour action movie. And if you’re making a two-and-a-half-hour action movie, and have hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal, why wouldn’t you try to make some halfway decent action scenes?
Through The Conjuring and Insidious movies, Wan has shown that he knows how to build suspense, slowly layering on tension before unleashing hell. But in Aquaman, any sense of patience or eye for crafting a great sequence is nonexistent. The lack of caring is evident from the first scene, in which Wan drops us into the middle of a submarine heist scene with little interest in building suspense or even explaining what’s happening. Aquaman, played with heart by Jason Momoa, gets his moment to shine, but the scene does a terrible job of establishing villain Black Manta other than to make it clear that we’re going to be stuck seeing Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s horrifyingly one-dimensional character for another two hours (seriously, could his character be less interesting?).
The rest of the movie, especially in the film’s off-kilter and uneven first hour (which felt like hour), feels shoddily slapped together, with Mera (Amber Heard) appearing briefly to tell Aquaman that bad things are going to happen followed immediately by bad things happening. The world’s coastlines are suddenly hit with massive tsunamis that are addressed with so little fanfare you wonder whether Wan forgot to make the scene until a week before the film’s release date.
Even big spectacle scenes, such as one where Mera and Aquaman are pursued through the rooftops of a town in Sicily, don’t live up to expectations. The Sicily sequence is staged better than most, but doesn’t come off as sophisticated or gripping as the filmmakers clearly thought it was.
Insead, Wan rips his characters from crazy scene to the next as if stuck in a perpetual whirlpool with little regard for making a coherent story or even coherent scenes. The less said about the screenplay the better, but the movie works best as some kind of poor man’s Indiana Jones, with Aquaman and Mera traveling the world to find King Atlan’s long-lost trident. Had the movie focused more on this adventure-based storyline and less on the cliche machinations of Atlantian politics and power grabs (Patrick Wilson is a perfectly fine villain but we’ve seen this kind of villain so so so many times before, doing the exact same boring thing many times before), Aquaman would have been so much more fun. It’s in these moments than Wan seems to really thrive–a sequence where the two leads hurtle into the depths pursued by thousands of sea monsters is both intense and visually beautiful, and another where Aquaman faces a Kraken-like creature is also reminiscent of something out of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Instead, Aquaman reverts back to an utterly forgettable, CGI-laced underwater battle that could have been cut entirely to save the torture of sitting through this overly-long mess. Sure, audiences looking for a battle between sharks with frikkin’ laser beams attached to their heads battling giant crab people won’t be disappointed, but it’s all just pixels clashing on the screen (and, arguably, Aquaman killing a lot of the people he is supposed to lead).
As stupid and silly as it is, Aquaman has its fun stretches. The world-building and production design by James Wan is impressive, and Jason Momoa is terrific as the title character. But the movie is way too long for such an awfully lame and overly complicated story, too much detail spent on the visuals and silly stuff and too little spent devoted to crafting memorable action scenes and story.
Because, in the end, Aquaman just isn’t a very well made movie. Entourage had it right all along.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.