In all my years of comics fandom I have never once read an Aquaman book. I’ve read JLA and other titles where he was included, but something about Arthur Curry as a lead character never appealed to me. He’s just too cheesy. And this isn’t related to talking with fish which, Dave Chapelle jokes aside, is a pretty cool power when included among others. Rather the entire concept of a superhero who’s really only super underwater was never interesting. Obviously Aquaman retains some level of power on land, but he never struck me as a terribly compelling character, and DC’s attempt to darken him in the 90’s with long hair and a harpoon hand felt like the type of desperate pandering that only made things worse. I’m sure there are some great Aquaman stories out there, and Jason Momoa’s interpretation of the character was easily one of the highlights of last year’s Justice League (his confessional scene is the only one I have revisited in the entire film), but there remains a certain level of cheesiness inherit to the character. Sadly, despite strong word of mouth and an excellent lead performance, Aquaman‘s odd shifts between high fantasy, b-grade sci-fi, and rom-com cliché, don’t do much to scrape the cheese from the character.
While I may not be sure about my own assessment of Aquaman and his history one thing I can say with absolute conviction is that Jason Momoa portrays Arthur Curry like a total badass. He looks awesome with the tattoos, the hair, and the facial scars, he carries himself with a nonchalant confidence, he has the ability to be wrong without seeming like a moron, and – as an early scene makes clear – his sense of hard justice feels necessary rather than gratuitous. In an interview with Metal Hammer, Momoa stated that his portrayal was highly inspired by heavy metal music, particularly “Ticks and Leeches” by Tool and Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, and this influence is clear, particularly in Curry’s first scene wherein he takes down a cadre of pirates using his fists and parts he rips from the submarine around them in the most straight forward, hard-hitting fashion possible. If the entire movie had the energy, efficiency, and impact of this opening scene, or to put another way, if the entire movie had been as metal as Momoa, it would have been much more enjoyable. Yet placing much of the movie in the ocean, as is necessitated by the character, removes any sense of gravity or impact. Both are dulled underwater.
The first hint of trouble comes at the introduction of Atlantis and its lore, even before the opening fight, when names and legends are blurted out as idle chatter with little context, becoming near overwhelming as we are deluged with long exchanges about Atlantian traditions while racing between the different kingdoms within the seven seas. For newcomers to the Aquaman mythos, the feeling parallels that of entering Middle Earth for the first time, but without the distance of knowing that this world is a separate one from our own. Instead this is supposed to be happening in our world, as we are constantly reminded with references to the surface, so being tossed into the middle of a bunch of fantasy sounding names and thousands of years of Atlantian history is akin, to keep the aquatic theme going, to beginning your first swimming lesson by being tossed head first into the deep end. The attempt at world building is entirely understandable, even admirable in places, but the cumulative effect of so many new places, people, environments, and technology introduced one after another after another makes what should be a rousing, awe-inspiring adventure become a numbing experience. After the sixth location title appears on the screen we’re less excited to behold its wonders than wondering how many more places there are left to introduce before we arrive where we need to go.
An argument could be made that the unease the viewer may feel is meant to parallel that of Arthur himself as he navigates this new world. We, like him, are outsiders here; the exact opposite of a fish out of water. Of course, Arthur having already met Mera in an underwater encounter with Steppenwolf during Justice League dulls this effect, yet the shift between Aquaman’s surface life and his entry into Atlantis doesn’t justify the other tonal shifts found throughout Aquaman. The high fantasy setting and advanced technology give Atlantis a decidedly Asgardian feel, even down to a one-on-one fight in an arena of screaming onlookers very reminiscent of Thor: Ragnorak. However, several location changes later and the film takes on the feeling of adventure rom-coms like Romancing the Stone or The Mummy with Momoa becoming the doltish scamp to Amber Heard’s refined, knowledgeable woman with whom he engages in a predictable game of Top That. This is followed by yet another shift into a riff on travel romances featuring an idealized version of southern Europe where the female lead is so enchanting she’s offered free flowers from the kindly local vendor, which is then interrupted by a sudden explosion, a device used a lot in this film. Meanwhile, as the movie swings wildly between genres, the villain is brutally consolidating the power needed to wipe out billions above and below the surface. By the end, when the ocean imagery is driven to obscene levels, and the romance is beyond cliché, the film resembles b-grade sci-fi that would have been on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The frustration over Aquaman‘s scattered tone is that there is a lot to love under the surface. There are scenes which are absolutely inspired, be they comedic like Arthur’s trip to a biker bar, or intense like he and Mera diving with a single flare through darkening waters. Momoa, as stated, throws himself into the part with great success, adding humor and piercing the pomposity of the DCEU. Statements on how those who live on the surface abuse marine life and poison the ocean with trash, oil, and other waste push a strong environmental message, shining a spotlight on an issue rarely given its due. And while a bit goofy to look at, the visual effects of the underwater worlds add to their believability. Yup, people underwater would ride sharks and sea horses. You know they would. There is enough good in Aquaman to make it clear that a streamlined version, one which doesn’t detour into cheesy romance and equally cheesy dialogue (an exchange early on includes the sunset facing an idyllic, computer-generated lighthouse and the lines: “Where I come from tears wash away.” “Here you have to feel them.”), could have been something truly remarkable. There is already enough inherited cheese in a man wearing glowing underwater armor firing a plasma rifle while riding on the back of giant shrimp. We don’t need any more.
World building is a wonderful thing, and necessary in this case, but those worlds also need to feel consistent and grounded in order to make them real. Aquaman‘s shifts in tone and place create a jarring, numbing effect, with a middle portion that borders on boring, which detracts from the earnestness with which the actors deliver the various histories of their fiction. If nothing else, Momoa proves here that Aquaman as a character doesn’t have to be cheesy. It’s a shame that the people in charge of bringing that character to life think he does.