2017 was an interesting year for the DC Extended Universe, or whatever this cinematic universe is called. Wonder Woman was a gigantic success and easily the best movie in the universe. Then Justice League came out, a film that was supposed to be one of the biggest movies ever made, bringing together all the legendary heroes of DC comics, and that film crashed and burned and barely exists now. The DCEU was in a cinematic limbo of sorts, and Aquaman was next on the docket. It could have been easy for the studio to play it safe and make an easy-going origin film that audiences could digest easier.
But that’s not the film that they made. Aquaman is a movie that puts all of its chips in the middle before the last card. A go-for-broke, epic that asks you to buy into everything that it has going on, from the world of Atlantis, to the rules of the ocean, to the drumming octopus and other sea creatures. This is a movie that doesn’t pull any of its punches.
And you know what? I dug the hell out of it. From its world building, to the characters, to the typical origin story, I was into every bit of this movie.
One of the best aspects of Wonder Woman, and one of the best aspects of the better Marvel movies, is the world building. These movies throw us into these fantastical worlds and allow us to drink every inch of the setting and the traditions and politics that come with this world. There is a lot of world building in Aquaman, as the film deals with ancient mythology, the depths of the ocean, and all the city’s that live beneath it. There are so many kingdoms, so many enhanced creatures, and a system of politics and hierarchy that if not explained and shown with enough detail would be confusing to the audience. But Aquaman makes sure we know this world and understands the politics that’s going on. With sweeping tours and grand shots of all the kingdoms, we feel and see every inch of these bright, luscious, insane new worlds. With scenes of exposition and a relatively simple political plot, we know the stakes. All of this helps us dive right into this movie and keep afloat the whole time.
DC and Warner Bros. made the right choice in getting director James Wan to helm this film and made an even better choice in letting him run wild. Wan has a unique visual style that he utilizes perfectly in every scene. He’ll tilt the camera a certain way or utilize slow-motion in a scene, but will never over-use these techniques. But what Wan does best as a director is understand space and understand scale. Even in Wan’s horror films, he understands the spacing of the room in Saw or the houses in The Conjuring films. Those films are smaller in scale, but Wan also understands the scale of big movies too. He did it in Furious 7 (one of the more difficult big budget directing jobs due to circumstance) and he does it here as well. Wan understands the depths of the ocean and the brilliance of Atlantis and all the kingdoms and makes sure we see all of it. From the awe-inspiring entrance into Atlantis to the final battle that features war crabs, angry sea horses, and SHARKS WITH FRICKEN LASER BEAMS ATTACHED TO THEIR HEADS, Wan makes sure to show us everything that Atlantis has to offer.
Jason Mamoa, an actor I was unsure could hold his own movie, is a joy to watch as our titular sea hero. I wasn’t a fan of his biker-bro, macho-man version of Aquaman, but it grew on me and I had a ball watching him. I can’t say this is the star-making performance that Gal Gadot gave in Wonder Woman, but this could be the start of something. The rest of the ensemble compliments Mamoa perfectly. Patrick Wilson plays a good power-hungry villain, Willem DaFoe rocks a man-bun like a boss, Amber Heard gives arguably the best performance of her career as Mera, Dolph Lundgren has red hair and it’s amazing, and Nicole Kidman wields a trident and kicks some serious ass as Aquaman’s mother, Atlanna, in a performance unlike anything we’ve ever seen Kidman do.
Aquaman isn’t a perfect film. The Manta stuff didn’t work for me and the love story between Aquaman and Mera felt a little flat, even though Mamoa and Heard have good chemistry. But it is hard not to respect the hell out of this movie. This is as big and ambitious as movies get. DC and Warner Bros. went all in and they scooped the pot. This is a movie that needs to be seen in IMAX, or whatever the biggest screen near you is, so you can see, feel, and taste all of it’s underwater glory. I don’t know what this movie means for the DCEU, but I want more of these bold, ambitious films made by a modern auteur.
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