Reel Talk

Embracing the Silly with Aquaman

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If there’s one thing I can say about the DCEU, it’s that it always keeps me guessing. I have, pretty vocally, not been a fan of the DC films as of late. They’ve taken some of the greatest superheroes ever made and run them through a moody teenager’s view of the world, creating a series of angry, bleak, and unpleasant to watch films that leave me more embarrassed than angry when done watching them. But, they’ve kind of all been terrible, save for Wonder Woman, in unique ways. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were both confusingly mean-spirited and seemed to take pleasure out of dishonoring everything the characters in the film stood for. Suicide Squad was barely a narrative, and more of a test-case on the importance of editing. And Justice League felt like five movies worth of information crammed into an under two-hour run-time, feeling more like a summary than a story. Wonder Woman is the only movie of the batch that had anything to say, and that was even able to tell a story of heroism. And even that movie was saddled with a pretty weak ending that seemed to be fulfilling a quota on incomprehensible CGI nonsense that the franchise had going, taking away what could have been a really poignant and interesting climax. It seems like the franchise has fully lost control, and everything seems to be in a bit of a freefall. Warner Bros keeps announcing new movies, almost none of which will presumably ever get made, and the general indication is that they’ve given up on trying to replicate Marvel’s success, moving away from the whole shared universe thing. Which, is probably the best possible move for them. They need to focus on telling worthwhile stories, not playing catch up. And, we may have been given their first real attempt at doing something different. Because after being introduced in Justice League, in some of the more confounding scenes in that movie, they’ve finally decided to bring Aquaman to the big screen. And, folks? It’s kind of impossible to describe.

Aquaman opens up with the story of how his parents met. His father, Thomas Curry, is a lighthouse keeper in Maine who one day stumbles upon a woman who has washed up on the shore. He begins taking care of the woman, and learns that she’s actually from the lost city of Atlantis. And, what more, she’s royalty. Princess Atlanna has fled her people to avoid an arranged marriage, and in the process has come to meet Thomas. The two fall in love, and eventually she gives birth to a son named Arthur. Unfortunately, the Atlanteans then find Atlanna, and force her to return to Atlantis, leaving Thomas to raise their super-powered son. Arthur then spends his life learning how to use his powers, and eventually becoming the superhero that people have dubbed Aquaman. Which we see in the form of him saving a Russian submarine from a group of under-water pirates. Aquaman fights the pirates, and in the process kills their leader, Jesse Kane, leaving his son David full of vengeance. But, Aquaman doesn’t really care about that, and returns to his life, trying to lay low and help out when he can. This becomes a problem though when he’s approached by an Atlantean he’s met before named Meera. She too is royalty beneath the sea, and she’s come to tell Arthur that his half-brother Orm is trying to unite the various tribes of Atlaneans to go to war with the surface, and he’s the only one who can challenge the throne and stop everything. Arthur ignores her, until Orm unleashes a massive set of waves that destroy quite a bit of coast, and almost kills his father. And, Orm has accomplished this by putting a fear of the surface into the Atlanteans, primarily by working with David Kane, setting up an elaborate false flag operation  to make the Atleanteans think the surface-dwellers have drawn first blood. So, to save the surface, Arthur agrees to travel to Atlantis with Meera, and attempt to defeat his brother. Which, doesn’t go well. He challenges Orm to ritual combat, and is almost immediately defeated, earning the mockery of the Atlanteans.

But, before Arthur can be executed for his impudence, Meera helps him escape. Working with Orm’s vizier Vulko, who is loyal to Arthur and his late-mother, Arthur learns that there’s a legendary trident, made by the great Atlantean king Atlan, which can only be wielded by the true king of Atlantis. And they think that that is Arthur. So, with Meera, Arthur sets out to find the legendary trident, while Orm and Meera’s father continue to wrestle control from the other Atlantean tribes so he can go to war. Arthur and Meera end up traveling to the Sahara desert, where a lost tribe of Atlanteans once lived, and by accessing their technology they’re able to find that the next clue is in Sicily. The pair travel there, and after learning the next step of the search, they’ve ambushed by a group of elite Atlantean commandos, led by David Kane, who has equipped himself with Atlantean technology and is now calling himself Black Manta. Manta and Arthur fight in Sicily, and Arthur is eventually able to defeat him, leaving he and Meera to continue their travels. And this takes them to a part of the ocean controlled by a race of terrible creatures known as the Trench. Arthur and Meera fight the Trench, and are eventually brought to a secret ocean in the center of the world. And, on an island in that ocean they find something unexpected. Arthur’s mother Atlanna, who was thought to be executed by the Trench. She brings Arthur to the final resting place of Atlan and his trident, but warns him it’s guarded by a mythological being known as the Karathen, who will only let the true king pass. But, Arthur is able to use his ability to communicate with sea animals to calm the Karathen, earning him the trident and the royal armor of the kind of Atlantis. Arthur, Meera, and the Karathen then arrive at the location of Orm’s army, doing battle with them. The fight eventually reaches the surface, and Orm and Aquaman do battle, for the control of Atlantis. And, after a lengthy fight, Arthur is able to best his brother. He doesn’t kill him though, and has him arrested, ready to start his new life as king of Atlantis, with Meera by his side.

 

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I really had no idea what to expect with Aquaman. He was one of the few highlights in Justice League, primarily thanks to Jason Mamoa’s insane performance, but there really wasn’t much of a character there. He was just kind of frat-bro dirt-bag Aquaman. Which, was better than like, moody and violent Aquaman, so he at least caught my attention. But an entire Aquaman movie, full of all the weird mythology surrounding the character? That could have been an absolute train-wreck. And probably should have been. But, against all odds, I found myself really enjoying this movie. I don’t think it was good per se, but I really had a fun time with it. Like so many of these DCEU movies, it still kind of felt like there was too much going on for one movie. Like, this was an entire Aquaman trilogy that had been cut down to one movie, as if they were incredibly unsure if this movie would ever get a sequel, so they tried to say everything they possibly could about him in one go. And, it frequently devolved into just a bunch of cluttered CGI, but that’s kind of the curse of the modern superhero movie, and if there’s any character that probably wouldn’t have worked with a restrained take, it would have been Aquaman.

Which is kind of the source of my affection for this movie. It’s silly. It’s silly as all hell. But it’s unabashedly silly. Because Aquaman is silly. He’s from Atlantis, he talks to fish, and most of his original stories were borderline mythological, just full of wacky undersea adventures. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Aquaman as a character, primarily because I’ve lived in a time period where people do their best to “reclaim” Aquaman. Because Aquaman is kind of a joke. He’s frequently used as a punchline, and the modern inclination towards writing Aquaman was to try and repudiate that. Which is how we’ve gotten decades of sullen, handless, angry Aquaman, most of which boils down to the writers doing their best to tell us Aquaman isn’t a joke, and is actually a badass, sometimes literally just telling the reader that. And that turns me off Aquaman so fast. But, this movie doesn’t go that route. Instead, it hews shockingly close to what may be my favorite all-time portrayal of Aquaman, which is from the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold. In that show Aquaman was a boisterous adventurer, who wasn’t trying to look cool. He just loved being Aquaman, going on crazy adventures and having fun. And that’s really appealing. Which is why it makes sense that this movie was so appealing. Because that’s the Aquaman we got here. There was a slight shift from the frat-bro we got in Justice League, instead turning into a more goofy and lunkheaded character. And it worked really well. I’m sure there are some Aquaman purists out there who are mad that they made Arthur such a goofball in this movie, but I think it worked wonders. He was silly, but ultimately good-hearted, wanting to do the right thing whenever possible. And that helped make this movie what it was. Which is fun. It’s bright, it’s colorful, and it’s not at all ashamed of what it is. It’s a movie about a guy who can talk to fish, saving the world from his evil brother the Ocean Master, full of weird fish people. It’s silly. And it’s proud to be silly. Which isn’t something we see much anymore. There’s no irony, there’s no shame. There’s just a good time with one of the weirdest and goofiest movies I’ve seen all year. And I’m thrilled.

 

Aquaman was written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, directed by James Wan, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2018.

 

 

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