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For years, the very idea of an Aquaman movie was a joke, as any long-term Entourage viewer can attest to. But with the real thing in North American theaters in a few weeks, thanks to star Jason Momoa and director James Wan, the question is, is the latest entry in the troubled DC cinematic universe going to sink or swim? Based on early critical reviews, things are looking good.
“Aquaman is so elemental in its tall-tale telling, its concentration on royalty and the overriding significance of battle that it feels closer in nature to ancient myth than do most comics-derived epics,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “This is arguably what works in its favor in comparison to most Warner Bros./DC features other than those by Christopher Nolan; even as it indulges its technical wizardry, the film is most rooted in its scenes of scenes of greeting, farewell and the clashes of titans in the ancient sense.”
McCarthy wasn’t the only one comparing Aquaman to other DC movies, as Polygon’s Karen Han demonstrated. “Love them or hate them, DC movies have shown off an undeniable sense of ambition, embracing the sheer sense of scale offered by film as a medium,” she wrote. “Aquaman is no exception to the rule; it’s just that it’s on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to literal and figurative light. As far as comparable properties go, Aquaman has more in common with Super Sentai (in any iteration) or the epics of Chinese director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, The Great Wall) than any other recent DC film — even Wonder Woman.”
So what makes this movie so unusual? According to Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos, the answer might be its overly ambitious nature. “Carried by Momoa’s natural charisma, the movie’s underwater charm offensive does a lot to smooth over its ill-advised attempt to cram way too much into one movie — even if it still stumbles while trying to juggle mythbuilding, romance, adventure, world travel, death, betrayal, riddles and puzzles, father-son bonding, Greek mythology, Julie Andrews as a Kraken-like creature, and multiple villains (including Julie Andrews as a Kraken-like creature),” he wrote. “It’s as if someone told Wan and team that Aquaman would be the title character’s one and only shot at a solo movie, and they made sure to go for broke.”
That’s something echoed by Empire’s Helen O’Hara. “The plot is honestly a mess: over-complicated yet predictable. What makes the film passably entertaining is that director James Wan throws astonishing amounts of action at the wall, and much of it sticks (though not always together),” she argued. “There’s entertainment in watching something so outrageously over-the-top, exploding in such strange ways. Just when you think you have a handle on it, something bizarre will happen. Nicole Kidman defending her baby son by taking out a death squad, say, or villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, underserved) inexplicably detouring to the North Sea (the film’s geography is deeply non-specific), or a Star Wars-alike battle on the seabed.”
“It’s as if, with every single take, he said: ‘Well, if we’re going to make a movie about a muscle-bound man who talks to fish, let’s make this really crazy,’” agreed io9’s Germain Lussier. “Then you get scenes of two characters kissing while the camera does multiple 360-degree circles around them, complete with massive explosions and frickin’ laser beams whizzing by their heads. It’s bonkers. It’s bananas. It doesn’t always work but when it does, oh wow, is it fun.”
Wan’s tendency towards over-the-top spectacle was noticed by Richard Lawson from Vanity Fair, as well. “Wan seems at his happiest when he’s taking us on a grand tour of the world below the waves, tracing the lines of the Atlantean diaspora from technologically advanced wonder cities to hellish crab holes full of pincers to, well, the surprisingly lush and verdant core of the Earth,” he wrote. “Wan announces each place with a title card, as in a Zelda game or The Lord of the Rings. He borrows a bit from The Fifth Element, too. But the homages and references are loving, and he uses them to create some dazzling, painterly scenes. There’s a joy to the film’s ornate beauty, a loving craftsmanship that rescues Aquaman from the branded synergy that so haunts and chokes it elsewhere.”
Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan was also taken by Wan’s choices. “It’s not just the great sense of underwater spectacle this team creates, complete with immense ancient statues and sea horses that really live up to the name, it’s that the effects make you believe the characters are actually living and breathing under the sea — even though filming on sound stages with wires and rigs was the order of the day,” he noted.
There’s more to the movie than just a surprisingly convincing beauty, however. Just ask Vulture’s Emily Yoshida. “The film’s finale, the undersea war that was promised, is the first time I can ever remember looking forward to a giant CGI battle, and I can’t wait until someone recuts it to the B-52s’ ‘Rock Lobster,’ Fred Schneider announcing each new fighting sea creature as it zooms through the deep,” she wrote. “Aquaman’s as formulaic, excessively thrashy, and mommy-obsessed as any other entry in the DCEU, but its visual imagination is genuinely exciting and transportive, and dare I say, fun.”
Of course, not everyone was convinced, as demonstrated by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Despite some engagingly surreal moments, heartfelt environmentalist gestures, big-name supporting roles and occasional flourishes of marine camp, this is a let-down,” he complained, calling the movie “a laborious, slow-moving and dripping wet film, barnacle-encrusted with solemnity and with a ripply-underwater production design that looks like a giant version of the kitschy items that you put in fish-tanks.”
Some people are all wet, it seems.
Aquaman is set to bow Dec. 21 in North America.
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