Big, Dumb Fun

After the film’s first screening, a friend jokingly tweeted about a scene “where Black Manta stands on a platform and swings a wrecking ball at Aquaman… the ball swings all the way around until it squashes Black Manta like a pancake.” Sadly, this doesn’t actually happen, but it wouldn’t have felt out of place if it did.

Aquaman is a slog when it’s trying to be straightforward, but on some level, it seems aware of this. Of course, this hardly excuses the inertia of scenes where characters, sans chemistry, stare at each other longingly (or discuss battle plans, or exchange personal histories), but almost every such instance — filmed with the most mundane, lifeless shot/reverse-shot coverage — feels like the drama reaching its tipping point before the film pivots at breakneck speed.

First, there’s an empty romantic beat between Thomas and Atlanna. Then, an exposition roundtable involving Arthur, Mera and Vulko (Willem Dafoe). And finally, a groggy dramatic scene between Arthur and Mera on land, where it seems they’re about to kiss. On at least these three occasions, the film’s glum dramatic chatter is broken up by sudden explosions, as side characters in candy-coloured fish-armour burst into the frame and break up the monotony.

The film, as if suddenly interested in what its characters are upto, shifts in tone and visual approach. The static close-ups are replaced by moving long-shots. Highly choreographed fights unfold in single takes, filmed on wide lenses just slightly short of fish-eye (heh). This skews the perspective, making more of the action whiz by in a given moment, as the characters create a visual feast. They flip and jump and roll around as Wan and Don Burgess’ kinetic camera matches their every movement.

The action is also the only thing connecting Arthur and Atlanna in any meaningful way beyond dialogue. In two separate scenes set decades apart, the camera whips around them as they smack Atlantean Stormtroopers with a ridiculous weapon — a quindent passed down between generations — performing super-powered acrobatics and causing general mayhem. Throughout the film, the characters constantly talk about Arthur’s lineage, but the only time it’s dramatized is in the mirroring of these action scenes, when the film is at its silliest.

Arthur drinks and makes merry with his father on land (he drops his first “Awright” here!), but it’s vital that he be seen a moving reflection of his late mother as well. Especially in a story that is, at least nominally, about bridging his two lineages. 

A Clunky Cartoon

When Black Manta finally returns to kill Aquaman, the ensuing land chase in Sicily feels right out of a Saturday Morning cartoon. Manta’s henchmen plough through walls and zoom past puzzled onlookers; one aquatic villain even dunks his head in a toilet so he can breathe. Manta, now sporting enormous eye-lasers, zips around like a balloon with a hole in it; “CLUNK” sounds emanate from his oversized head every time he takes a hit. The film is waggish visual stimulation for babies, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

At one point, a falling church bell endangers some bystanders. Aquaman, rather than engaging in textbook heroics, headbutts it out of the way (another “CLUNK”) before Mera incapacitates the remaining henchmen using telepathically-controlled wine. All of this unfolds in slow-motion, nestled between rapid foot-chases filmed with reduced shutter-angle to reduce motion blur — a jerky, strobing effect caused by reduced exposure time popularized by Saving Private Ryan — thus bringing the action closer to DC’s usual crop of janky animation.

If all this sounds “bonkers,” that’s because it is, and it’s presented in a manner befitting of the phrase. The action departs from the rest of the film by resembling a thrill ride, or a cartoon, or a videogame cut scene. King Orm, whose thinly conceived motivations create a narrative vacuum, becomes a visual focal point in the third act once he dons a mask that moves with his expressions. As if the live-action Skeletor had been granted the facial freedom of his animated precursor.

The film hits its ludicrious apex when Aquaman, now draped in his traditional orange and green, enters the undersea battle atop a Lovecraftian kraken (voiced by Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins, no less). He fights alongside adorably ugly humanoid crustaceans — all hail the Brine King! — stumbling into what feels like a renaissance tableau by way of Lisa Frank. And, in what might be the film’s most overtly silly flourish, concentric circles emanate from Aquaman’s head, visualizing his fish-telepathy in homage to the 1970s Super Friends cartoon:

The film is completely muddled in terms of story and theme, but Aquaman’s solo arrival on the world stage takes the form of wacky cartoon throwbacks; your mileage may vary. This sort of texture often comes at the cost of story, but at nearly two and a half hours in length, there’s enough story, and enough that’s poorly told, that any attempt at meaningful narrative actually drags down the big, dumb action scenes, which are worth the price of admission.

For better or worse, tales of blood feuds and social messages fade into the background. In their stead, the film is rife with mermen astride whinnying seahorses and laser-toting sharks, culminating in a battle that hinges on whether or not our hero can spin his trident really fast in a circle.

Aquaman is unbearably frustrating when it’s trying to be serious. At the same time, I wish the “serious” crop of superhero movies let themselves be this much fun.

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