Warning: light spoilers ahead but the movie kind of sucked so I think that’s fine.
There have been a couple of variations of Aquaman that have existed in pop culture before DC Comic’s latest attempt at a blockbuster film. There’s the lame blonde guy from the Superfriends whose only power is talking to fish that everybody from Seinfeld to Spongebob makes fun of. There’s the grim and gritty but oddly sexual Aquaman comic run by Peter David in the ’90s where he had long hair and a hook for a hand. There was the Aquaman movie within a movie starring Vincent Chase from the third season of Entourage.
Finally, in 2017 we had the “Thor of the Sea” version of Aquaman played by Jason Momoa in the first Justice League movie. In other words, there have been a lot of attempts to make Aquaman happen over the years. I went into the movie hoping it would be a mixture of the best versions, and took a friend who was just hoping to see Jason Momoa without his shirt on for two hours. In the end, neither one of us got what we wanted.
Aquaman is all over the place; a bizarre tale of white nationalism, suburban environmentalism, a dash of predictable 80’s adventure movies, bad fight sequences and gorgeous visuals. Plus, Jason Momoa is fully clothed most of the time.
Without giving too much away, Aquaman is about an underwater white nationalist ethno-state called Atlantis, desperately trying to maintain the pure bloodline of the royal family after the queen got some Shape of Water action from Tom Curry (played by Temeura Morrison) and had a baby named Arthur with superpowers (Jason Momoa). Think I’m kidding? About 10 minutes into the movie my friend asks “Why do all the Atlanteans look like movie Nazis?” Just about everybody in Atlantis appears to be white, and all the royals have slicked back blonde or fire red hair.
The racial politics and imagery of Aquaman are really strange for a superhero film. On the one hand, the Atlanteans led by Orm (Patrick Wilson in all of his menacing pseudo-German-Nazi glory) want to go to war with the surface world for dumping trash, oil and sunken ships in the ocean for hundreds of years. On the other hand, they’re racist as hell, they hate all of the other humanoid species in the ocean and nobody blinks when Arthur Curry is called a “half-breed” and “impure.” Mera recruits Arthur in the hope that as the bastard son of the Queen he can take the throne and stop Orm from starting a global war. Except, none of that really makes sense in the movie.
There is also a weird subtext to Aquaman that you see in a lot of Hollywood films about seemingly oppressed or abused people. In the Planet of the Apes, the Apes who want revenge on humanity are always the bad guys. In Avatar the aliens who want to give humanity the Sentinal Island treatment are depicted as evil. The truth is, Orm and the Atlanteans have a pretty good case against the surface world. The fact that Aquaman, the hero, insists Atlanteans tolerate humanity’s perpetual line (or coast) stepping for the sake of peace is the kind of #AllOceansMatter garbage that always has me siding with Magneto in the X-Men movies. Of course, it’s kind of hard to blame humanity for dumping into the oceans when HUMANITY doesn’t KNOW that ATLANTIS exists. But that’s just one of a million plot points that seem to go missing once this movie goes underwater.
It’s ironic that in a film called Aquaman, the best acting and plot points occur above the ocean and, once you go Under the Sea (in my best Sebastian voice), the movie becomes visually appealing but the plot is as thick and convoluted as seaweed.
Character motivations are introduced then dropped every other scene. Mera and Arthur go on a mystical journey that’s a bad re-creation of Romancing the Stone (including bickering that of course blossoms into love) and it’s never explained how they get around the world. One minute Atlanteans know nothing about the surface world and the next minute they’re making pop culture references and wearing shoes (who needs shoes in the ocean?). One minute Aquaman is a lovable dummy the next scene he’s figuring out the Da Vinci Code of the ocean. The action scenes on land are stilted and look like every other DC movie; leg sweeps and sliding kicks with awful synth-pop music in the background. If it weren’t for the great performances of minor actors in the movie, Aquaman would be one big cliché.
If you were in a superhero or action movie in the last 30 years, you probably got a call-back from Aquaman’s producers. Nicole Kidman (Batman Forever); Dolph Lundgren (Creed, Rocky), Temuera Morrison (Star Wars), William Dafoe (Spider-Man) all added heft to otherwise flat roles. Yahya Abdul-Mateen (The Getdown, Baywatch) is fantastic as the pirate villain Black Manta. In the comics, Black Manta is a political militant who believes the only way that black people will be free is to create our own nation under the oceans. It’s like if Jules Verne was writing Marcus Garvey.
While the racial origin is toned down in the movie, Manta is a super genius who can somehow reverse engineer Atlantean tech with his Macbook and is a better adversary for Aquaman than those water-breathing bigots in Atlantis. As much as I enjoyed Manta and Aquaman’s conflict, the fact that it was orchestrated by those white nationalist Atlanteans took away some of the fun.
Aquaman stands above all of the DC movies so far, if for no other reason than the director discovered primary colors and put some real effort into the costuming and climactic undersea battle at the end of the movie. Plus, unlike Batman, Man of Steel or Wonder Woman, everything in Aquaman isn’t solved by violence. It’s nice to see a superhero film stick to the mantra that heroes don’t kill unless there’s no other option. In fact, the only time Aquaman shows disregard for human life leads to the creation of one of his biggest obstacles in the movie.
If you’re looking for a way to spend two hours, Aquaman isn’t bad. If you’re hoping to see topless Jason Momoa for two hours, you’re out of luck (he spends most of his time in dockers and wet shirts). If you’re somehow that strange 2% of the population that just loves Aquaman and have been waiting for this movie since he and Aqualad were riding seahorses in the ’60s, you won’t get everything you wanted but you won’t feel like you wasted 20 clams when you see the movie either.