A Deep Dive Into 'Aquaman' and Its Lingering Questions

It’s very much a James Wan movie, but what would have happened if it had been in the hands of the Wachowskis or another filmmaker?
Amber Heard and Jason Momoa in 'Aquaman'   |   Courtesy of Warner Bros.
It’s very much a James Wan movie, but what would have happened if it had been in the hands of the Wachowskis or another filmmaker?

[This story contains minor spoilers for Aquaman]

The following is a conversation about the new live-action superhero movie Aquaman conducted by The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. We say that it's "the new live-action superhero movie Aquaman" so you don't get the topic of our conversation mixed up with all those other Aquaman projects, like that one failed Aquaman TV show pilot made by some of Smallville's creators. Don't get it twisted: this Aquaman is not that Aquaman. This Aquaman is a big-budget, theatrically released, action-packed blockbuster starring Jason Momoa as Aquaman, a hotheaded (and sometimes lovably ditzy) half-human, half-merman who drinks, romances and fights his way in and out of trouble as he takes his rightful place as the underwater kingdom of Atlantis' ruler. 

Simon Abrams, aka Billy Ocean: Well, my friend, this is it: the year is pretty much donezo, so it's only fitting that the film we wrap things up with is [checks notes] a live-action, halfway decent Aquaman movie? That can't be right, can it? Could we have dreamed up the film we saw together last Thursday night, the one that our friend Matt Zoller Seitz called, in his typically stirring RogerEbert.com review, "a quietly subversive movie, and an evolutionary step forward for the genre"? Is that a film that exists? Because I gotta tell you: like ScreenCrush critic Matt Singer, whose sharp, funny review, hews a little closer to my reaction, "I couldn’t even believe I was watching [an Aquaman movie]." I don't think you could believe it either, judging by all the giggling and terrible water puns you and I exchanged throughout Thursday's screening. Hell, I'm pretty all in with Scarecrow Video's Matt Lynch when he jokes that the film shoulda been called Krill, which, as Lynch notes, is "a pun on the movie Krull." I'm not even going to try to explain that pun; you either get it now or you don't at all.

Let's proceed from the assumption that we didn't all just have a Aquaman-movie-shaped mass hallucination. If that's the case, then the film we saw was simultaneously the most outre recent DC Comics film and the most flamboyant (I particularly like that Singer compares Aquaman to Batman & Robin, specifically in terms of both film's high camp content).  

I think we can all agree that Aquaman is (a) a movie that (b) features visually lavish, computer-graphics-intensive action set pieces, as Seitz mentions, several of which (c) seem to wink at viewers on multiple levels, including (d) cartoonish special effects (Bowling pins being struck! Human belching! Light-saber whooshing!) as well as (e) visual cues that hint at all the little visual tics/sources of inspiration that director James Wan and his team (probably) modeled their film on, everything including: TronWonder Woman; Jupiter Ascending; Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace; and Thunderball. There's a lot of movie in this movie, as Seitz, Singer and Lynch write.

With all that said: something that I think none of the Matts stressed — for reasons that honestly make a lot of sense — is just how uneven Aquaman is. Wan is, as I told you Friday night, only in his element when he doesn't have to set up his films' respective plots or human-scale emotional stakes. His tendency toward melodramatic bombast is something I generally enjoy, but his films are usually only as good as their ideas and/or screenplays. I have a theory about that: as a storyteller, Wan's at his best whenever he treats humans like figurines who express themselves with action poses and garish costumes instead or character, actorly or plot-driven details. 

So it's no surprise that Aquaman works best when Momoa's title character is reduced to a glowing red light that's being chased by an army of desiccated fish-monsters, or when he's one small actor on the movie's fitfully grand, loopy stage during the climactic underwater free-fall battle. 

If you judge Aquaman on that level, you can see why Wan and his creative team joyfully boast/broadcast their success by having (what looks like) a gigantic crustacean version of Cthulhu rise above-water and triumphantly flap its flippers at viewers just before the film ends. That's where Wan's movie should have ended. Because that images conveys everything that makes Aquaman (mostly) enjoyable: it's a crazy, joyful, oversize spectacle, one that celebrates and even amplifies the character's colorful nature.

With all that said: do you think the film's pros outweigh its cons? I suspect you do, based on our brief conversations. 

Steven Boone, aka Ocean Man: I enjoyed talking through, and at, this silly-ass movie with you — which strikes me as merely using the product as directed. It's Aquaman, not First Reformed (though I'd probably enjoy a version of this fish fantasy told in austere transcendental style as well). Matt Seitz's review describes the visual flourishes that make this film a new generation's Krull. Like that nutty '80s classic, Aquaman is lovingly crafted. The costumes, the effects, the 360-degree parkour camerawork twisting through endless virtual sets.... I tend to hate that kind of cotton candy for one reason only: No charm. A movie this plastic and gargantuan lives or dies by charisma, or lack thereof. Forgetting the reams of philoso-jabber written on their meanings, what's the important difference between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049? One has stylish charisma oozing from every pore, hem and pane of glass while the other wants to effect a heady gravitas like a philosophy major with no discernible social skills. Like, you can't engineer or reason your way to Edward James Olmos as a cholo noir detective. 

The way modern blockbusters go, I could easily see Aquaman turning out to be yet another zero-charisma, trying-too-hard feat of engineering over soul. But it's nearly as warm as the Marvel flicks, performer-wise, and far more childlike than those works, design-wise. I imagine Hayao Miyazaki smiling at the seahorse cavalry charge. You mentioned to me that the film works best when it is basically like a little kid playing with action figures. That nails it. Usually with this kind of thing, it feels like a 38-year-old Call of Duty gamer shouting into his headset.

Speaking of man-children: I can't wait for the Blu-ray so I can re-score Aquaman with a selection of hyperactive early James Horner scores, including music from Krull. Not to dis the existing score, which breaks up some of the generic contemporary orchestration with dreamy synth cues betraying director James Wan's '80s and '90s influences. I agree with you about the wealth of homage here. Every matinee blockbuster/since/Thunderball seems to be in this movie. 

But since Aquaman deals with a conflicted "half-breed" hero, feudal infighting, the war for supremacy between various races of sea creature (the dominant one looking mighty European!) and a black pirate supervillain ("Black Man... Ta!"), it's as well stocked with social cues as Black Panther. But I won't dig deeper than that. As an African American, I was happy to enjoy this one as merely a fish costume swashbuckler. I can't co-sign Matt ZS's "evolutionary leap" praise, but this is the greatest fish costume swashbuckler I have ever seen. Wait, here's a better blurb for TV: "The most thrilling piece of popular entertainment involving African-Americans and fish since The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh."

This all makes the movie sound like a non-mess, but, no, it's a mess, just not an oppressive, joyless one like so many of its DC brethren. Jason Momoa basically hangs out for the duration, expertly pulling an Eddie Murphy-in-The Golden Child as the movie gains more Olympian grandeur and fish-silliness.

The climactic confrontation involves Nicole Kidman (Aqua-Mom) dragging some sincere lament and tenderness out of Momoa and Patrick Wilson (Aqua-Bro) over the broken relationship between Land and Sea. I was actually moved by this gesture of cosmic reconciliation, reminiscent of the The Dark Crystal's lovely "Two Made One" ending. I was also fiending for some fried shrimp. Man, next time we see something with this much fish in it, we eat first.  

Abrams: I don't know what to add to that, Funzo. We really are in sync on Aquaman, right down to our agreement that the film's messiness does not detract much from its frequently glorious nuttiness. I do, however, want to ask if you thought that maybe Wan wasn't exactly right for this gig? Like, what if instead of homaging the Wachowskis — what if Warner Brothers/DC Comics just let the Wachowskis make this film? Admittedly, that would probably never happen. I don't presume to have inside knowledge, but I imagine the muckety mucks at Warner Bros. aren't eager to let the Wachowskis do a comic book movie after the Wachowskis' messy, but mostly ingenious Jupiter Ascending tanked at the box office. Still: in a world where Aquaman exists...wouldn't you rather see the Wachowskis make this movie than, say, the guy that did Furious 7 and The Conjuring

Wan brings a lot to the table in terms of his energy and his direction of the film's more "plastic" set pieces. 

But Aquaman is also pretty campy, and Wan's filmmaking is so butch that he brings to mind the reviewers that made John Waters comparisons when they wrote off John Turturro's messy but lively musical-comedy Romance and Cigarettes

Boone: Wild that you mention John Waters, because the sentence I cut from my last round was something like, "It's a mess, but so are John Waters movies, intentionally, ingeniously." John Waters himself would have been a great choice for all this movie's hot, wet power plays and opportunities for Esther Williams riffs. And he would allow for some fat people under the sea. I would have just as happily accepted Lee Daniels.

But none would have brought as much propulsive, movie-movie force alongside the camp as the Wachowskis, true. They come by camp and sincerity with the least calculation. (From their first two films, Bound and The Matrix, it was clear that these siblings simply osmose pop influence and queer/kink/subculture imagery.)  As you noted, Wan's giddiest sequences are reminiscent of pop-saturated moments, like the races in the Wachowskis' Speed Racer. So don't count them out because of a recent flop, Warner Bros! Give them the Aqua-sequel. Wan, you go back to making pretty damn good horror movies.

This is a fun geek game, imagining various auteurs doing an Aquaman. David Lynch, ooh. Tim Burton, nooo.  Luca Guadagnino, haha. Floria Sigismondi, whoa. George Miller, of course. 

Whoever directs an Aquaman flick should take on this gig as bravely committed to flamboyant foolishness as Momoa is the first time he steps out in full fish-scale bodysuit, roaring like he just won the WWE belt. 

Abrams: Your note on Momoa's performance leads me to my last talking point: the film's actors are all basically fine, but unremarkable. There are some exceptions to that sweeping generalization, like Patrick Wilson's stern, shout-y Oceanmaster and Willem Dafoe's typically restrained mentor figure Volko. But Momoa, co-lead Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman all deliver OK performances. I wonder if that's because they weren't encouraged to reach their full potential. Or it could be that their dialogue wasn't juicy enough. Maybe they didn't completely vibe with their roles. Or maybe their performances are as good as their characters are, based solely on this film (I wasn't able to catch up with recent comic book incarnations of Aquaman, like the definitive stories that were written by Peter David, Geoff Johns, and Dan Abnett). 

What do you think, man: Is Aquaman only as good as its special effects, or is there a human element here that we're either missing or willfully downplaying?

Boone: The human element is there and the castmembers are appealing, but Aquaman is just too damn long for their moderate level of investment. It doesn't exactly drag at two-and-a-half hours, but it also doesn't gain any emotional power either. At 90 or even 80(!) minutes, this film might have cut a more dashing figure. Speaking only for us: we passed the time MST3K-ing the scenery and dialogue.

Look, the original 1978 Superman movie was two hours and 20 minutes. The camptacular Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was 90 minutes. Perhaps because it's an origin story, this Aquaman seems to have been edited for the wrong weight class. By next summer, some YouTube fan editor will put out a Quest for Piece edition that swiftly MST3Ks itself.

  • Simon Abrams
  • Steven Boone