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I had no hopes for Aquaman as a film. I liked Wonder Woman and Justice League enough, but not everyone else did (especially Justice League) and even then I found them serviceable and okay. But lo and behold Aquaman was getting some good reviews and being considered by plenty to at least be "fun", and I like fun things so I went to see it.
Two and a half hours later I left rather satisfied with this popcorn film, and it scratched a certain itch I hadn't gotten since Thor: The Dark World (as flawed as that movie was). But more on that in a bit.
First, the problems of the film. People talk about the cliches all the time and how it is fairly by the numbers in terms of plot beats, but to me the real fault of the film is there's quite a bit of exposition that feels clunky and more for the audience than the actual characters. Like why the heck wouldn't Black Manta know about his grandfather if he was the one who started them doing the pirate thing? With all the underwater stuff, sometimes it can also be very hard to understand what people are saying, especially during action sequences.
But other than that...? It's a very solid film that felt consistent from start to finish, and even internally. Most of the humor just comes from Jason Momoa, whose Aquaman is coarse, somewhat foul-mouthed, and extremely casual. The fact he gets thrust into this very traditional setting with a fairly standard quest to prove himself king is made all the more prominent when everyone else plays their part with a straight face. And that is feels very refreshing when Marvel films have gotten more humorous and self-aware, with varying results. I really liked the gravitas and seriousness of the first two Thor films, for instance, and all the humor in Ragnarok kept me from loving it and instead merely thinking it was fine.
When I see Black Manta wear his goofy helmet, but nobody calls attention to it, that actually helps sell it. That helps sell that I'm watching a story unfold rather than actors perform in front of me. If Aquaman had played its story with any kind of self-awareness, it wouldn't even be half the film it is because what'd be the point in taking the movie seriously when the actors don't?
For all the usual tropes, we still get mountains of great characterization too. We get to see Aquaman actually is plenty intelligent, and has a rough exterior but is a great guy underneath, and his ability to communicate with sea life is similarly played straight-faced and has a fantastic and thematically appropriate payoff.
I don't know what people were expecting from the film. I'd imagine some people wanted it to fail just because hurrdurr Aquaman, and others probably either wanted it super dark and cynical, or really comical instead because again, hurrdurr Aquaman, but can't we just have a nice thing? Can't we just have a well-executed film with heart, charm, and an earnestness we haven't seen very much recently?
As far back as I can remember, Aquaman has always had an undeserved reputation as a "lame" superhero, because of his supposedly useless superpower of "talking to fish" and his cloyingly neutered portrayal in the Super Friends cartoon (in which EVERY character was made weaker, not just Aquaman.) These people forget that, in the comics, Aquaman is the King of Atlantis and, as such, holds domain over 75% of our planet. That's not mentioning that he has superhuman strength, speed, and agility - all of which he'd logically need in order to survive the crushing pressures of the ocean, much less swim very fast in it - and that his supposedly "lame" power allows him to command sharks, giant squid, killer whales, Krakens, Leviathans, and even fucking CTHULHU. This movie is a testament to how awesome the character is.
The plot may be a little cliched, but it's still unique enough to provide a story that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats while providing plot lines familiar enough to properly introduce them to the King of the Sea. The acting is phenomenal - Jason Momoa really captures the swagger and coolness the character should have, he and Amber Heard have great romantic chemistry, and it's a delight seeing Willem Dafoe in anything these days. The sets, costumes, and special effects are a visual treat, the morals, while heavy-handed, are still worth considering, and the characters are just amazing. Mera is amazingly cool-headed, confident, and a perfect romantic foil for our Boisterous Bruiser hero, Ocean Master and Black Manta pose very credible threats as villains, and the Karathen was both terrifying and awesome. The only complaint I really have with the film is that "Ocean Man" isn't on the soundtrack.
Of course, none of this was good enough for critics, who exaggerated this film's faults for reasons I can't fathom - almost as if they feel compelled to complain about it because it's a DCEU movie. I don't know whether Marvel has spoiled us into expecting perfection, or if Accentuate the Negative Caustic Critic online reviewers like Cinema Sins have become so influential that they're starting to influence actual films critics, but either way, the movie is getting more hate than it deserves.
All I can say is that this movie will be enough to make a fan out of anyone who mocked Aquaman before.
Aquaman is a superhero movie that feels like it was created as an illustration of how people who don't like them think superhero movies are. Silly costumes, sillier scenery, corny, exposition-laden dialogue, "witty" banter, run-on-the-mill storyline about a chosen one, predictable twists, hammy villains that get redeemed at the end, a love story crowbarred in with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the forehead - the list goes on.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with archetypes and familiar elements: it's perfectly possible to create something enjoyable from something the audience already knows. The problem is that Aquaman seems to think that this translates to "being made of nothing but clichés is fine as long as you're aware of it". It doesn't. There comes a point when an overabundance of clichés become annoying and it becomes obvious that they are simply used due to pure laziness on the script's part. Clichés stop being charming and start being cringeworthy.
One example: the movie opens and ends with voiceover narration by our protagonist. The end narration contains the sentence "their love saved the world" and ends with (this isn't really a spoiler) "I AM... AQUAMAN".
What we are left with is visual pizzazz, some charming performances, and well-directed action. All of this is good, but superhero movies have matured too much in the last few years (compare this to Black Panther, released this very year, even if I personally think that movie is merely "good") for this to be enough to pull this above "decent".
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