These days, it’s almost unheard of for a movie trailer to accurately prepare an audience for the experience they’re about to have. Aquaman is one of those rare exceptions where you can watch a 2.5 minute trailer and know what you’re in for in the 2.5 hour movie. And that’s a good thing. So take some time to rewatch the Aquaman trailer above – and then dive right back into this review.
A review by Sarah and Peter.
Sarah gets full credit for the headings that swim. Peter takes full credit for those that sink.
Pleased to Make Your Aqua-intance
Set after Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League, Aquaman opens with the story about how his parents, Queen Atlanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), met and fell in love, conceiving a child of two worlds. We also learn why that child, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), grows up to reject his mother’s home of Atlantis, while at the same time has to deal with bullies as he fits into the surface world.
After a run-in with pirates hijacking a submarine, Arthur is approached by undersea warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), who tries to convince him to take his rightful place as King of Atlantis. Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) plans to wage an all-out war with the land-dwellers. Only by taking back the throne from Orm can there be peace between Atlantis and the surface.
What follows is one intense adventure after another, as director James Wan expertly mixes and melds several movie genres to produce one epic superhero movie. Despite a runtime of 2 hr 23 min, Aquaman doesn’t feel like that long a film.
Nothing Watered Down Here
Each scene slips easily into place, jumping from disaster film to IMAX-worthy science fiction scenes to Spielberg-inspired treasure hunting to extended rooftop chase scene – all building up to an epic fantasy battleground. It’s quite a rush but Wan ensures you’re never really gasping for air even though he’s holding your head underwater.
The action in the film is a wild ride from start to finish. Move over swordfights, because trident battles will now blow you out of the water. If you’re a fan of monster films, you’ll be thrilled by the skirmishes with armored seadragons, sharks and Orm’s tylosaurus. And Atlantis is every bit as fantastical and out-of-this-world as it should.
And just in case you forgot this was a comic book film, Mera’s hydrokinesis is awesome to behold. The best scene of her ability comes during the confrontation with supervillain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his henchmen in Sicily.
A Whale of a Time for a Splash-back
Viewers are also treated to a artistic History Lesson on the Seven Kingdoms of Atlantis (following in the tradition of Man of Steel’s Kryptonian colonisation and Wonder Woman’s origin of the Amazons). A lot of this exposition may seem to drag parts of the movie, but the good news is it all pays off really well if you pay attention. This is how you do proper world-building after all.
And yes, there is even a training montage.
Through flashbacks of Arthur’s childhood training with Atlantean mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), viewers with no knowledge of Aquaman get an easy rundown on his superhuman abilities. Wan is especially committed to rehabilitating Aquaman’s much maligned ability to talk to marine life, and Arthur often gets to use this very power in the most epic way possible.
Hail to the King, Long May He Rain
In fact, one of Arthur’s Big Damn Hero™ moments comes about because of this particular ability. Sometimes words are what you need to resolve an issue, instead of fists – a lesson that Arthur takes to heart.
On the topic of Arthur’s character arc, it deals with not only finding his self-worth as a dual-heritage child, but also acknowledging the decisions he and his Atlantean predecessors had made which led to painful results. It is satisfying to see such character growth of a new leader opting for a different, kinder route than the ones before him.
The heroes aren’t the only ones experiencing character growth – despite having two main villains in the form of Orm and Black Manta, both don’t feel short-handed as we are given a sufficient look into their backgrounds and motivations. Black Manta in particular comes across almost sympathetic, although Peter personally dislikes humanising villains who have less than questionable morals.
Skimming the Surface of Current Events
The true strength of Aquaman is how it manages to be both overt and subtle with its messages. The former is a pretty poignant environmental message about how we’re treating the oceans and seas as our dumping grounds, even though there are a multitude of living creatures who call the waters home.
For the latter, look no further than Jason Momoa.
The casting of Momoa – which he credits to Zack Snyder wanting to reimagine the traditionally white blond superhero as biracial Polynesian – as a protagonist caught between the land and the sea could not be more spot on. Throughout the film, slurs such as “half-breed” and “mongrel” are hurled at Arthur. Having a biracial actor to visually represent the otherwise allegorical characterisation of a half-human, half-Atlantean’s internal and external conflict leaves a deeper impact and really hits home for biracial viewers like Sarah.
An even subtler message slipped in is seen with the issue of tight border control along the walled Atlantis, and a later confrontation with what is essentially Atlantean border police.
Don’t Rock the Comic Book Boat (Much)
While Aquaman makes the effort to deliver important themes, it also fully embraces its comic book origins. Drawing most heavily from Geoff Johns’ and Ivan Reis’ New 52 run, the movie adapts a whole host of information, not just exposition, but also the costumes, the stylistic transitions, and even the base aesthetic.
James Wan knows that this is a comic book movie, and spends almost every other shot reminding you of it. There are hair flips, exaggerated combat poses, and lots and lots of topless Arthur. There’s a particular transition to a meeting between characters that made Sarah wonder, “Wait… he was just wearing a shirt before this. What happened to it?”
How Deep (Sea) is Your Love
And, oh yes, just in case you felt there was room for the movie to add just one more genre to it’s octopean embrace – it also has time to develop not just one, but two romances.
In Aquaman, Arthur and Mera eventually fall in love. The film manages to just avoid fully delving into the trope of Cultured White Woman with Uncivilised Brown Man by flipping it on its head – exposing Mera into a typical fish-out-of-water situation and showing us Arthur’s more intellectual side. The romance between them develops from two bickering strangers having no choice but to work together to stop a common foe, to a gradual respect and appreciation for each other’s capabilities and innate goodness.
The film’s other romance is no less important. Tom Curry and Queen Atlanna are played by Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman respectively, who are no strangers to being in DC films. It is their characters’ love story that serves as the film’s emotional backbone.
Credit must be given to Jason Momoa who campaigned for Temuera Morrison to play Tom Curry. Despite being of Native Hawaiian descent, Momoa clearly has a deep affection for the Māori culture. Morrison and Momoa ensure that Tom and Arthur’s heritage is seamlessly woven in – be it Arthur sporting a pounamu or the father-son conversation of getting a traditional Māori tattoo known as the tā moko. In a couple of scenes, Arthur also speaks Māori!
That Soundtrack, What a Catch
Rupert Gregson-Williams, who composed the score for Wonder Woman, returns to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) with Aquaman. We were already fans of this Wonder work, and his score this time round doesn’t disappoint. Unlike the former film, Aquaman doesn’t already have an established theme the way Is She With You serves for Wonder Woman. Thus, Gregson-Williams has the creative freedom to come up one for Arthur Curry.
Arthur’s theme starts off as an edgy rock-and-roll electric guitar riff first heard when we’re reintroduced to him during the aforementioned submarine rescue, matching the ruggedness that Momoa brings to his character. He gets another theme later on, simply titled as “Arthur”, when he’s embraced his kingly destiny – it comes off with a suitably awe-inspiring, majestic feel… but there’s still that cool electric guitar riff near the end.
Black Manta’s theme appropriately has DUN DUN DUNNNN as the main melody. And for the sequence with the Trench sea monsters, we have Joseph Bishara, who composed for Wan’s previous horror works Insidious and The Conjuring, instead. Bishara’s Trench score matches perfectly with the horror aesthetic Wan was going for when Arthur and Mera were attacked by these Lovecraftian creatures. As a fan of Wan’s horror work, this spinechilling sequence was a total treat.
The original song “Everything I Need”, written by Skylar Grey and Elliott Taylor and performed by the former, croons Arthur’s growth from reluctant heir to full-fledged hero during the credits.
There is one song on the soundtrack may appear a little out of place in the movie. You’ll know it when you hear it. Turns out, it was a cameo for one of James Wan’s longtime collaborators – Charlie Clouser! Clouser did the soundtracks for the entire Saw franchise.
Water You Waiting For
Aquaman is an incredibly important movie not just for the DCEU, but for superhero movies as a whole. James Wan’s vision, building on the foundation that Zack Snyder prepared, elevates both Jason Momoa and Aquaman to the status of international acclaim. It’s proof that the world is not tired of seeing superhero films, as long as they get to represent the world.
Oh yes, and you definitely have to stay for the mid-credits scene.
And a final word from Sarah:
With another biracial superhero in cinemas right now, fellow biracials, this month is for us.
Sorry I don’t make the rules.