'Aquaman' and Why "Cheesy" Shouldn't Be a Bad Word

The history of blockbusters is a history of cheese, and the numerous meanings associated with that term cross genres and directing styles.

The first reactions for James Wan’s Aquaman made a splash earlier this week, and attached to the positive reactions was one repeated sentiment — the film has its fair share of cheese. Now before anyone starts to panic or reconsiders their early ticket purchases, let’s make one thing clear: Cheesiness is not an inherently negative thing.

Sure, a quick dictionary perusal of the term turns up words like cheap, inferior and chintzy. But a look into the origin of the word, a slang term from 19th century Britain, turns up a far more positive definition: showy and admirable.

When it comes to cinema, that original definition still holds true.

It’s not a leap to say that some of the films we hold nearest and dearest to our hearts are cheesy or corny. But so often in contemporary criticism and reaction pieces, cheesiness is used as a demerit, even if only a mild one. We see repeated statements like, "It was good and had a lot of heart, but it was so cheesy" or, "It’s wildly entertaining but ridiculously cheesy in spots." Even when we appreciate the over-the-top aspects and confidence associated with cheese, we often frame the quality of cheese as a flaw or something we enjoy with guilt and the knowledge that its low-brow quality is something we’re slightly above. But our history of blockbusters is a history of cheese, and the numerous meanings associated with that term cross genres and directing/writing styles. While our Western tastes may have evolved to hold grounded realism and subtlety as the tenets of modern masterpieces, it’s time to reclaim the cheese.

Going by the trailers and marketing materials released for Aquaman, Wan’s film is operating in the spirit of our '80s and '90s action blockbusters that were big on personality, set pieces and romance. While Wan, like most directors, probably wouldn’t describe his own work as cheesy, there is an element in all of his films that is reminiscent of a previous era when blockbusters were just as interested in people as high concepts, and more interested in moments than where the film fit within the scheme of a franchise.

When we think Wan, primarily known for his horror work, cheese isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But his early films Saw (2004), Dead Silence (2007), Death Sentence (2007) and Insidious (2011) are punctuated by performances taken to the extreme and moments of camp that feel markedly different from much of the self-serious and psycho-investigative horror that surrounded it and has become increasingly common. Even though the Saw and Insidious franchises evolved to become more about overarching storylines and trauma, those first four Wan films are midnight movies. While Wan’s style and bleak color palette in those films may position them firmly within the grit of the early 2000s, these films, especially Dead Silence, are in line with the works of video store horror maestros like Stuart Gordon and Charles Band, who gave many genre fans an early, and easily accessible, taste of cheesy goodness.

Although Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016) are the filmmaker’s least cheesy works, there is a reason why they are so often highlighted as containing a magic similar to Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). Those films contain a sentimentality that we often find associated with cheese. Patrick Wilson’s Ed Warren singing Elvis and playing the guitar during The Conjuring 2 is one of the film’s best moments, but it’s a quiet moment of sincerity so unconcerned with plot that it stands out, if not as cheesy then at least old-fashioned. It seems, quite often, that cheesiness and old-fashioned have become interchangeable terms, further complicating what’s being implied when we call a film cheesy. It’s Wan’s old-fashioned sentimentality that made him such a perfect choice to helm Furious 7 (2015). While the Fast and Furious series may be one of the world’s biggest action franchises, it’s just as concerned with emotional relevance as it is with explosions. Furious 7 is a film that features the Rock flexing off a cast and saying “Daddy’s gotta go to work” and later wielding a minigun pulled out of a drone, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham engaging in a rooftop sword fight with tire irons, and a fitting final ride for Paul Walker that’s impossible to watch with dry eyes. It’s cheesy, but it’s cheese at its finest. Still, the franchise has proven to be divisive among critics and fans, with some conflating its cheesiness with poor quality. But that kind of cheesiness is good for us. As masterfully fulfilling as blockbusters by Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott are, we need films that fulfill us in another way, that embrace their own ridiculousness with glee. It’s a need we used to have an easier time accepting.

Films like John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986), Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994) and Simon West’s Con Air (1997) were more invested in the heart of the here and now than the allegorical relevance of the future, or cerebral depth ready-made for college term papers. Even as these films have become integral parts of our pop culture, and have found continued success in the home video market, every year there are think pieces detailing why x movie, really, in retrospect, isn’t good. From Top Gun to The Goonies (1985) we have critics sharing their thoughts on why a beloved film is actually bad, and a lot of this often comes down to a lack of realism, a smirking smugness now found annoying, and a consensus that cheese is bad for us. These pieces are a testament to our changing tastes, tastes that drive moviegoers to form opinions on films before they even hit theaters, or make YouTube videos pointing out flaws and sins-that-aren’t-really-sins ad nauseam.

There’s a self-seriousness in the way we approach discussing films, a self-seriousness that even extends to making fun of them. We claim to want movies that are fun, charming, and lighthearted, but so often when we get them we become more invested in pointing out their imperfections, in feeling superior to the films. Much of this comes down to a misunderstanding of tone and a lack of consideration about what a movie or performance is trying to be. From the Rock and Rampage to Tom Hardy and Venom, this year has been populated by films that social media has readily regarded as too cheesy to digest, and one Eddie Brock-baked tater tot away from being an artery-clogging disaster.

While the films of Bollywood and the South Korean studio system embrace tonal weirdness and deviations from reality that allow cheese to seep in, we Western viewers are often turned off by it when it crops up in our own films. Bong Joon-ho has made wonderful films that would quickly be defined as cheesy were they made in Hollywood. Films like The Host (2006), Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) blend sentiment, over-the-top performances and genres to create wildly satisfying stories on the human experience. Bong Joon-ho may come the closest to Spielberg’s early blockbuster days, when Indiana Jones would partner up with a child and ride a minecart over lava. We mostly accept Joon-ho’s strange blend of cheese in America because it’s a film from “over there” and, in our isolation, not a reflection of us. But when he incorporates actors familiar to Western audiences, like Tilda Swinton or Jake Gyllenhaal, and they immerse themselves in his world, then those performances become divisive — cheesy in a way we can respect but rarely fully appreciate. Our demand to have characters perform like real people, and to see a separation between adults and children in our blockbusters is a modern American symptom. It’s the reason why we still haven’t seen Batman and Robin work together in live-action in the 21st century, and why we still question the acting abilities of Nicolas Cage despite him being one of our finest and most self-aware thespians.

Sure, cheesy films can be bad, especially when cheese is unintentional. There are plenty of films like Mortal Kombat (1995), Jonah Hex (2010) and the accursed Dragonball: Evolution (2010) that do reflect our current definition of cheese with cheap. But more often than not, self-aware, old-fashioned cheese with the right creators and performers behind it is just as worthy of our attention and respect as the self-serious and grounded. Hokey dialogue, over-the-top sequences, and schmaltzy relationships aren’t just things to be reserved for cult classics like Road House (1989). They belong to our biggest films as well, and our equally representative of who we are as a people and a culture. We may strive to be taken seriously and for our films to be representative of that, but we can’t deny our inherent cheese. When done well, cheese is not a flaw but a badge of honor that is worth showing off.

  • Richard Newby