Impish and pious in equal measure, James Wan’s Aquaman is almost violently at a crossroads with itself. It both worships at the altar of the comic book and recklessly exposes the form’s essentially frivolous nature, giddily treating the comic book as holy writ while implicitly dismissing any desires to lard the form up with self-conscious airs. Somewhat astoundingly, it resurrects the mid-century pulp spirit of B-cinema and the comic book form, almost more Heavy Metal than DC, a spirit that both cherished and, at least sometimes, derived genuine pleasure out of that paradoxical overlap of silly and serious. The best of these comic books are somehow both eternally reverent to the value of unquestioned, thoroughly and inhumanly “good” mythological super-persons and essentially amused by this worshipful fascination. They seem almost curious about how loopily self-indulgent it is to get lost in such nonsense. Aquaman is quite conspicuously nonsense, and its melding of the ridiculous and the sublime never treats that nonsense as anything less than completely sincere.
Wan’s uninhibited reveling in the glory of the material, at the very least, is never less than thoroughly accounted for on-screen, as is the seemingly unabashed affection of perhaps every technical head of department in the film. From cinematography to production design to costuming, Aquaman is an almost absurdly committed motion picture, approaching its adolescently rapturous glee to be a superhero film with a kind of raffish, over-confident ineloquence that is, to this reviewer, so endearing at the level of pure affect that it almost overwrites the film’s very obvious, very glaring, and very self-evident problems. The self-aggrandizing monumentality of the production is clearly apparent – the film self-evidently believes in the value of Myth with a very capital M – but the film cuts through this gloriousness with a slippery sense of knowing absurdity. And, in turn, this silliness doesn’t dismantle the seriousness to the point where it might lapse into intensely self-effacing, excusatory irony. It’s silly, in other words, but quite serious about its silliness, and like its hero, Arthur Curry (aka … you can probably guess), the film is at its best when he’s playing the court jester as well as the king.
I mean, for goodness sake, one of the central features of Aquaman’s final battle – sharks with fricking laser guns on their heads – is quite literally a major punchline in one of the Austin Powers films. And before that point, the film doesn’t slouch on the delirium, right up to the point of a gigantic, vaguely Lovecraftian undersea creature voiced by Julie Andrews (more convincing here than anything in Mary Poppins Returns). Or a frankly spellbinding encounter in a Sicilian town where Wan’s camera is deliriously unhinged, and where the film’s abiding interest in treating “history” as an exercise for mythic showboating rather than critical investigation is both at its most liberatory (in that the film totally dismisses any compulsion to perform access to “reality,” choosing glorious, and gloriously superficial, artifice) and at its most troublesome (for exactly the same reason).
Trouble does set in, however, and, unsurprisingly, it arrives at the exact same frequency as the film failing to commit to its willfully superficial texture. While the film is busy trying to nail the peculiar balance of signaling how daft all this is while still worshipping at the altar of what amounts to a 200-million-dollar heavy metal album cover, it’s also busy doing what seemingly every other blockbuster does these days: pretending to nuance its central “conflict,” only for the failure of its imagination to be revealed in the limits of this analytical complication. Points, perhaps, are deserved for how this film at least preserves its animated elan and sense of “aww shucks” buffoonery. It doesn’t, in other words, self-complicate to the point where it might just expose its inability to truly think about the complications it raises. And, at the end of the day, it is very wisely still content to be a 200 million dollar cartoon and little more. But Aquaman would still be better if it was more self-consciously empty. Indeed, it might even be better if it was more openly inadequate.
Specifically, Aquaman (like pretty much every superhero film these days) can’t quite keep its head away from its heart, eventually committing to the belief that it is more thematically textured than the film can truly sustain. As the film progresses, it does what late ‘10s comic book movies simply do, not because it needs to or because it reveals any unexpected imaginative heft, but simply because it’s what late ‘10s comic book movies do: it conjures a villain that is an imaginative “double” of the protagonist, driving the hero’s weaknesses and strengths into relief by exposing their dark underbelly. Specifically, Aquaman “doubles” its hero (Arthur Curry, played by Jason Momoa) with its villain, suggesting that they both disdain the “other” world and are at risk of being subsumed by that hatred. Arthur, who is half-Atlantean but was raised on land by his human father, hates the undersea Kingdom of Atlantis for killing his mother, Queen Atlanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), for fathering Arthur with a human. The film’s villain, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), wishes to destroy the “human” world for so badly mismanaging the earth. And, of course, they’re half-brothers, Orm the legitimate son of Atlanna. With Orm ready to start a war, Mera (Amber Heard), a hot-headed Atlantean princess, gets Arthur involved as the only other rightful heir to the throne.
Like nearly all of these films, Aquaman emphasizes the individual over the social, privileging Arthur’s personal affront (his dead mother) over Orm’s legitimate disdain for the desecration of the entire earth. It’s a lazy, anti-political gesture that elevates the personal over the political, a rhetorical tick of pop culture that is, in fact, a deeply embedded norm of our culture, and a norm which films like this might be primed to examine, if only they considered it a fault to begin with. As with Black Panther, the other big single-superhero film from 2018, Aquaman negligently and lazily codes its villain’s severe political misgivings with another party as his psychopathic hunger for power. There are differences: Aquaman is more abstract and less thoughtful than Black Panther in the way it vilifies Orm. It doesn’t really try to nuance Orm at all, which, I suppose, makes it “worse”, but it also feels less offensive because it places much less effort on actually pretending to “explore” its antagonist, and thus to “humanize” him, or to exist in anything remotely resembling a real-world that has things like “political conflict” or “social issues”. Killmonger in Black Panther is a very human form of rejection and existential homelessness, while Orm (like every character here) is a caricature so abstractly related to any reasonable way people interact and think that the political implications of the film feel both neutered and, perhaps, less troublesome.
Still, the film would be better if it didn’t dabble in those concerns at all, or if it was even remotely interested in streamlining its narrative clutter. For instance, the film amasses a fairly dense collection of near non-characters played by (sometimes) absurdly overqualified actors, extraneous souls looking for a purpose in a narrative that has little real use for them (much-appreciated though their presence is at the level of affect). In addition to Kidman, there’s Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Arthur’s chief mentor as a child (secretly venturing to the surface to tutor him), and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a secondary antagonist seeking revenge on Arthur for leaving his father to die (and who, frankly, is a more textured antagonist than Orm, and the subject of a better film).
None of them are especially meaningful, but, again, their broadness has an appealing giddiness; they’re not characters but icon-figures in a superhero soap opera, toys for Wan and co. to play with. And make no mistake: this film is ultimately, and unabashedly, and often wonderfully, Wan’s childlike effusion of glee, his 200-million-dollar toy-box. It’s a pretty fantastic toy-box, all things considered – especially when Wan plays with his favorite toys, the sights and sounds of his much-beloved horror cinema, in a late-film assault by the undersea trench people that look like nightmare incarnate. The problem is that the film succumbs to the nefarious meddling of corporate-types, adults wishing to sanitize this uninhibited sense of play with the intrusion of politics the film has no idea what to do with. Or perhaps the film reveals something even more terrifying: that children playing with shiny toys only reify the ideological suppositions of wider society without, sometimes, even realizing it. Or being ordered to.