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Aquaman: An Arthurian Tale Fails to Make Land

By Chris Redshaw                                                                                                                                                                                1/9/19

 Ten years ago, the idea of putting the fish-talking, fast-swimming Atlantean DC superhero Aquaman on the big screen seemed pretty far fetched, even in a time when Marvel's cinematic universe was really starting to hit its stride, and yet, at the end of 2018, the aquatic superhero was brought to life thanks to director James Wan and Jason Momoa stars as the titular hero. Not only has Aquaman been successful, but it's also well on its way to being one of the top grossing superhero movies ever.
 Why is Aquaman so successful? The answer to this question is painfully elusive. When boiled down, the story presented in Aquaman leans heavily on the legend of King Arthur: primarily of the famous sword Excalibur waiting for someone worthy enough to wield it and unite a kingdom. Even the film is quick to point this out, with Arthur Curry's (better known as The Aquaman) mother, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) telling our hero about a fabled trident that has the power to unite the seven underwater kingdoms in the first ten minutes of the movie. Obviously, this story has been done a million times over, and in no way would gain such a massive profit today. So, the film's story likely isn't responsible for its success.
Well, maybe Aquaman packs a lot of star power, with rising actors and actresses submerging into their characters, bringing an emotional typhoon that audiences can relate to. Again, you'd be wrong. Although Aquaman certainly has its share of stars, most of them phone their lines in, with Patrick Wilson being the main offender as Arthur's usurper half brother Orm, who spends most of the film acting like a petulant child as he coerces the leaders of the underwater realms into starting a war with the surface world. He comes off like Kylo Ren in a fish tank, solving all of his problems by yelling or stabbing.

Arthur's love interest is the Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard), who, like the tale of King Arthur, emerges from the sea to send our Hero on his quest. The dislike between Heard and Momoa that persists through most of the movie is more believable than the sudden infatuation they gain for each other at the end of the film's second act; but you probably won't mind much, as Heard spends two thirds of the film in a skin-tight fish suit, naturally exposing most of her breasts, gawking at whatever special effects are happening in the background.

Willem Dafoe brings some seasoning to the film as Vulko, Orm's advisor, who has been in secret grooming Arthur for the throne since he was a child. While Dafoe's talent helps against the endless barrage of "awesomes" and "I don't want to be the king," (which is about 75% of Momoa's dialogue), it isn't enough to keep interest in the plot afloat.
 The majority of Aquaman's first act is spent forming the origin of one of Aquaman's most known adversaries, the Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), who's hijacking of a Russian submarine is thwarted by our Hero. Manta is one of the few characters in the movie who has a legitimate story arc, but, like so much of the movie, the potential is bogged down by weak dialogue and yet another actor who gives off the vibes that he really doesn't want to be there. Aquaman leaving Manta's father to die spurns the villain to pursue Aquaman to exact his revenge, with the help of Orm's goons.
A few other stars make appearances throughout, such as Dolf Lundgren as Mera's father King Nereus, and John Rhys-Davies, who is for some reason made to look like Mr. Krabs, given two lines of dialogue, and thrust into a massive CGI battle that seems to crop up out of nowhere.
 The only redeemable quality for Aquaman is the visuals of the film, which are admittedly impressive...so long as they stay below water. Scenes taking place in the ocean or any of the other mythological settings look incredible because the environments are almost completely computer rendered. However, whenever the story moves onto land, the digital additions become pretty clear, taking away from viewer's immersion. It is important to note, also, that most advances in the plot are brought on by a nearby wall exploding. Seriously, by the end you'll be trying to guess which wall in a scene might suddenly explode, prompting the next (mostly) CGI fight scene.
Considering all the evidence presented, I'm still no closer to finding out what makes Aquaman such a blowout success. I understand that, as a comic book movie, it's meant to be just a fun, exciting ride. But couldn't it be more? In 2005, when comic book films were still seen as something mainly for a younger audience, Christopher Nolan released Batman Begins, showing the world that superhero movies could be gritty and artistic, to critical acclaim. Soon after, in 2008, Iron Man became a phenomenon, carried by Robert Downey Jr's charisma, showing the human side of superheroes. While many movies from both the DCU and the MCU have tried to emulate the success and feel of these past films, none have really succeeded. It seems to me that as we make advances in special effects, the heart of these movies is declining, until we're just left with Jason Momoa, standing in front of a green screen, saying "awesome."