Aquaman Retrospective: How Did it Go so Wrong?

Note: since this movie has been out for a few months, I’m not worried about spoilers in this. Also note: pop culture moves so fast these days, I feel totally justified doing a retrospective on a movie that is only a few months old.

So with the next big thing in film being the Shazam movie coming out this week and me being laid up with strep throat, including an inability to focus on the blog post I had originally planned for today, I decided to watch the good DCEU movies – which we’re apparently calling World of DC now because DC has realized that public has been completely soured to the idea of the DCEU. Unfortunately, the ‘good’ World of DC movies, in my opinion, consist of the first two acts of Wonder Woman, the Smallville fight sequence in Man of Steel, the Batman fight sequence near the end of Batman vs Superman, and…that’s about it, really.

There was no way I was going to slog through Man of Steel or Batman vs Superman for a third time just for that one fight sequence, and while I enjoyed Suicide Squad and Justice League both more than I did Aquaman the first time around, I’ve since watched each again and have no desire to do so a third time.  I thought about watching one of the Marvel movies again, but I’ve seen those all so many times that I need a bit of a break. Like, at least a week.

Aquaman was the only movie in the current DC canon I’ve only seen once, and I sometimes feel like I’m in a tiny minority of people that actually thought this movie was terrible. I’m also currently writing an underwater battle scene for the Small Worlds series, so after I’d watched Wonder Woman for the sixth time, I decided to give Aquaman another attempt. Now, unlike Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman, there were no scenes in Aquaman that I remembered as thinking “oh man, I have to find this on youtube to watch again.” Also unlike Suicide Squad and Justice League, I didn’t find myself thinking “man, this movie is a mess, but I’m having some fun watching it.”

At least they found a way to make the gold chainmail look cool. Then again, Jason Mamoa would probably look badass in a pink tutu.

What I’m getting at is I hated Aquaman on my first watch through, and part of why I hated it was because it had everything that normally would override my better judgment and cause me to love a movie. I am a sucker for beautiful cinematography, interesting creature design, anything that takes place beneath the ocean, fantasy politics, power armor, superheroes, and sci-fi with a Buck Rogers or John Carter of Mars aesthetic. Aquaman was all of those things in a single package. It even had dinosaurs and a Kaiju thrown in near the third act and a full-on war between fish people riding aquatic dinosaurs and sharks going up a kingdom of giant crab people. People get impaled by narwhals. An orca shows up. Again, the monster design is nothing short of fantastic. If ever there was a film that would completely short circuit my logic center and cause me to fall in love with it in spite of its numerous flaws, it should have been this movie.

How the hell did I not love a movie with this monster as a major player in the third act?!

Yet it didn’t, and that makes me so angry. I want to love Aquaman, but I can’t.

I can forgive that pretty much every actor besides Jason Mamoa seems to realize how terrible the film is and is clearly phoning in their performance or hamming it up as much as possible. Bad movies have bad acting, that’s just something I deal with when I love them. I can forgive the absolute lack of chemistry between any two actors in this film, although I am baffled by how this many talented actors can manage to completely avoid any kind of naturalistic interactions. Again, bad movie, bad acting, I can deal.

Pop quiz – what emotion is Mr. Mamoa trying to portray here? Because I watched this movie thirty minutes before finding this screenshot and have no idea. 

The problem comes down to basic storytelling. The story is a structural mess. It was an origin story for the titular Aquaman, an origin story for the underwater kingdoms of Atlantis, an origin story for both Ocean Master and Black Manta, an origin story for Aquaman’s trident, an origin story for Aquaman’s mother, and on top of that all a diet Game of Thrones political intrigue. There was no reason for this movie to be so bloated, and adding to that, pretty much all information is delivered to the audience in the form of long-winded, overwritten, and painfully dull exposition that serves only to move the plot from one set piece to the next – when it even does that.

This should have been three movies. The first solo Aquaman movie should have been his conflict with Black Manta, with Ocean Master in the background supporting the vengeful tech pirate. A movie like that would have worked as a standalone if it flopped, but left room for sequels if it didn’t. The second movie could have focused entirely on political intrigue between the Atlantean Kingdoms and Ocean Master’s rise to that title. The third could have finished with Aquaman’s quest for the Trident and the big action setpiece at the end. It would have given all the disparate elements of this movie room to breathe and be developed properly. It could have been incredible…but instead, we got this.

Of course, the movie we got made a billion dollars at the box office, so clearly for most people, the absolute mess of a story wasn’t a deal breaker.

I will say upon rewatching, I did find two things that I enjoyed. The sequence involving the Tench was absolutely harrowing, allowing James Wan to really show off his horror chops, and I’m actually excited for his rumored Trench movie just because of the fusion of horror and superhero action we got in that one setpiece, and the final battle I found more enjoyable on the second watch – in part because my expectations for the rest of the film were so much lower, so I was less angry by the time we got there.

If there’s a lesson to be taken from this, it’s that you shouldn’t try to do too much at once in a single narrative. Give the elements you have in mind room to grow and develop so you can properly enjoy them. While you don’t need to adhere to a full three-act structure, make sure your story has some sense of structure.

And if not, at least we’ll still have Wonder Woman. 

And here’s to hoping Shazam gives me a second DC movie I can place alongside Wonder Woman as “mostly enjoyable.”


2 thoughts on “Aquaman Retrospective: How Did it Go so Wrong?

  1. Pingback: Why This Isn’t a ‘Shazam!’ Review – The Home of Alex Raizman

  2. Pingback: Why You Should be Watching the Arroweverse – The Home of Alex Raizman

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