Just because that DC isn't dark, doesn't mean that it's good. Look no further than the latest Aquaman as a prime example. Hot off the heels of his first outing in 2017's Justice League, Jason Momoa returns to the sea to distance himself from all of the buffoonery that took place on land. (Basically.)
When reading or listening to reviews, there are a common subset of words that will often trigger some internal warnings for myself. When people say that a film is "fun" or "easy to watch" it has me often second guessing said speaker. Much like saying something is "good", it doesn't inherently speak to any specifics of the film, but moreso glosses over in its entirety while failing to address really anything that it brings (or doesn't bring) to the proverbial table. Aquaman can absolutely be "fun", "easy to watch" and "good" assuming that you abide by a few simple rules. Let's take a quick step back.
The plot here is pretty by-the-numbers, so don't expect to be surprised at all whatsoever. Unless you've never seen a movie or read a book, then the storyline presented won't be the thing you'll walk away remembering. For those who need it, just imagine a generic crisis plaguing a foreign land. Someone from said land ventures out to an "unexpected place" to stop the crowing of a soon-to-be king, and the unfit chosen that they're seeking, expectedly, doesn't want anything to do with their affairs. Within the span of a solid 6 minutes, give or take [I don't care how long], we go from I don't want any part of your affairs to fuck it, who doesn't like road trips? And so the retelling of a watered-down Black Panther begins.
Let's start with what the film (sort of?) gets right. Jason Momoa as Aquabro is less bro than Justice League, but still wholeheartedly a bro, bro. With that comes a few pros, like an excess of charisma and confidence. Very little seems to phase this version of Aquaman, and the worst of his problems feel little more than ah well, that's a bummer. And although this film isn't meant to be another DC downer, there never feels like there's much weight to anything negative that happens to the Man of Fish. But in contrast, he at least always takes everything in stride and seems to be having fun, which is what the film appears to mostly boil down to. (An appearance of fun, not actual fun, mind you.)
The problem with focusing solely on the idea of fun is that it overlooks essential pieces of what often constitutes a good (or great) film, and thus hinders it from being a modern superhero classic (or even a surprisingly satisfying romp at your local theater). Like a child drawing up their zaniest fights and battles with action figures in a bathtub, Aquaman at least delivers on the fight sequences which do provide some interesting twists that land more than they do flounder. Aside from an over-usage of a 360 pan and a few too many instances of slow motion, you're mostly kept in-tune with the action, and that's where the film hits its furthest, and most confident stride. The illusion of single-shot, close quarters action sequences are enticing and engaging. They keep you on your toes as the camera smartly pans and zooms to keep you in the heat of the moment, while also providing you with a solid grasp of the entire battlefield. However, after the tridents recede and the action subsides is when most everything else falls flat.
Audio-wise, I was curious to see how director James Wan would tackle the sound of underwater dialogue, and boy was it worse than I thought it could be. Instead of ignoring having to deal with water sound effects all together—which would've been nice looking back—there was a weird echo present throughout. It was as if the late Kurt Cobain was tasked with audio mixing and decided it was best to add extra chorus and reverb to all pieces of underwater dialogue. The end result was tough to listen to, but at a certain point, you start to realize that most any piece of dialogue carries little to no significance, so it wasn't that much of a drawback. (Good job, Kurt!)
When it came to the supporting cast they were, at best, serviceable—and at worst, middling. Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman are the notable names, and although their acting performances and dialogue delivery are mostly fine, they aren't given much in terms of depth or nuance. Most everything uttered out of every characters' mouth states the obvious or tries to poke fun at any event that just transpired. This can be mindless entertainment in bursts, but a whole film's worth starts to wane quickly. Some glaring examples of this are Aquaman's first action sequence in which nearly every punch and throw is immediately followed up with a close-up on his face, then a smirk and guitar riff. I wasn't entirely sure if this was meant to be cool, or campy, but it came off a bit of both. If I had a choice, hell, I'd have them slap a bass like Seinfeld and go all in on the funnies. Even beyond that, the worst culprit is any instance in which Black Manta shows up. Sometimes referred to as the Boba Fett of Aquaman, I feel gives the galactic hit man a bad rap. I'm fairly certain that when he yelled award-winning lines such as, "Nooooo!" and "Damn you!" I wasn't supposed to laugh, but dammit, they got me good. At least Boba Fett didn't bleed my ears with redundant dialogue (or any dialogue?)—so in this case, less would have certainly equaled more. Manta's only somewhat redeeming quality is that his fight sequences were pleasant to watch, however unnecessary to the overall plot they may have been. They didn't last nearly as long as his dozen and a half one-liners, but I'll take what I can I suppose. It's also no mistake that I haven't mentioned Amber Heard up until this point. Her character was amazingly lifeless and commanded far too much screen time. Heard and Momoa's chemistry was next to none, and considering they spend large portions of the film together only adds to an already lackluster experience. There are cases to be made in which an on-screen romance drives an action film, but this ain't it, chief.
So is Aquaman completely devoid of spectacle and entertainment? Far from it. But, like really any film, it all comes down to how heavily you weigh both expectation and results. For myself, expectations were low and results were also, unfortunately, equally as low. I'm no stranger for excusing a film's lack of character development and decently written dialogue in favor of action set-pieces carrying the load (*cough* The Fast and the Furious franchise *cough*), but there needs to be at least some semblance of an overarching thing to work towards. If said thing is meant to be Aquaman becoming a king of his people, then I'm sorry to break the news that this wholly unoriginal story arc isn't going to do much to captivate or satisfy. You can find bigger and better examples of this near-exact story elsewhere, and although it won't come lavished in glistening water, not everything is better that way. DC could've had some momentum going with Aquaman, but too often do they deliver on an experience that they think audiences will like. The gargantuan Marvel Studios isn't where it is because of slapstick humor and eye candy. It's adding a combination of those things to a foundation consisting of easily digestible, yet succinctly delivered dialogue and character development. It's a visual feast that aims to emulate a reflection of what people inherently are—deeply flawed at their worst, and heroic at their best. Instead of exploring the depths of what has made the superhero genre so special as of late, Aquaman keeps things painstakingly surface level to the extent that it only ever musters up an average experience. It'll garner some laughs and deliver on more than a handful of fight scenes, but otherwise doesn't have much to offer. For some, this will be more than enough reason to go out to a theater to expunge both time and money, but it's tough to recommend using up any amount of resources towards indulging in this film. Personally, I wouldn't ever want to settle for an average time, especially when it comes to entertainment. Again, it's not an un-watchable heap of trash, but chalk this one up as another chapter in Missed Opportunity: The Movie.
(Fun reminder to check the rating scale! 3 ≠ 30% = F in my completely-unscientific-method-of-rating-movies.)
1-2: Horrendous, wouldn’t recommend watching even if free of charge.
3-4: Potentially has some good ideas, but overall still lackluster.
5-6: Average, a decently good time; go see it if it's free.
7-8: A solid recommendation, and well-rounded film; warrants a purchase after home release.
9: No glaring flaws; deserves to be watched multiple times.
10: Masterful, must-see; filmmaking at its finest.