A couple of weeks ago, on the night of an Aquaman screening, I accidentally went to the wrong theater, and was chagrined for more reasons than one to find myself sitting through the first few minutes of Peter Jackson’s dystopian Mortal Engines (which went on to tank with both audiences and critics).
Since I had blown my chance to catch Aquaman that night, I briefly toyed with the idea of staying for Mortal Engines, but quickly decided against it. What I saw in those few minutes struck me as off-puttingly bleak, ugly and dull, like so much Hollywood spectacle these days.
So many blockbusters pour millions of dollars in immense computer-generated illusions that may be more or less persuasive, but aren’t especially worth looking at. Superhero movies are especially guilty of this. Cities are laid waste, planets are imperiled, fleets of starships clash, but not a single memorably crafted image of beauty or poetic power lingers in the imagination.
There are occasional exceptions. Black Panther’s Wakanda was a production design triumph. Doctor Strange, above all, crafted a dazzling visual vocabulary to express the magical world its characters inhabit.
What else? I recall no visual poetry in Avengers: Infinity War or Justice League. I’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 twice each, but their brightly colored fantasies are as ephemeral as cotton candy.
So, now that I have managed to see Aquaman, there is this to say for it: Like the Star Wars prequels, like James Cameron’s Avatar, it’s a movie with tons of problems, but it also contains images that made me catch my breath — gorgeous and even numinous sights I will remember forever.
At times it feels almost like a setting for a live-action Hayao Miyazaki film, which is about the highest praise I could give for blockbuster production design.
Miyazaki has often found mythic power in human spaces, especially ancient cityscapes, flooded with water. However he would feel about this rather dim-witted film as a whole, I suspect the animation legend would appreciate the vision of Atlantis conjured by director James Wan (the Conjuring movies) and production designer Bill Brzeski, abetted by cinematographer Don Burgess (Cast Away, The Conjuring 2).
That’s not just due to the mesmerizing beauty of its translucent, jellyfish-like structures rising from the sea floor on slender stalks, with sea-creature-esque vessels soaring among them alongside actual sea creatures, but also for the haunting juxtaposition of the living bioluminescent cityscape with the shattered domes and pillars at the city’s roots: the ancient ruins of the original island city destroyed when Atlantis sank.
In the first of a pattern of striking parallels to Black Panther, Atlantis is just one of seven undersea kingdoms, each with its own vibe, all descended from the original Atlantean civilization.
What’s more, the plot turns on a struggle for the Atlantean throne between our hero and a sinister relative who wants to unite the kingdoms to wage war on the surface world for its malfeasance — in this case the despoiling of the world’s oceans rather than racial injustice, although racial themes also play a role here.
That’s because our hero, Arthur Curry, the half-Atlantean Aquaman (Jason Momoa), is disparaged by his full-blooded Atlantean half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) as a “half-breed” and “mongrel” (as well as a “bastard,” though the marital status of Arthur’s parents isn’t established).
As the first major superhero film with a virtually all-black cast, Black Panther is a landmark achievement, but racism and racial alienation are depicted in Aquaman where Black Panther only talked about them.
When Momoa was cast, I thought his Pacific Island heritage well suited to playing a man of the sea. Oddly, though, Aquaman establishes that the Atlanteans are Aryan; Arthur’s brown heritage comes not from his royal marine mother (Nicole Kidman), but from his human father, a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison, of partly Maori descent).
In another reversal of Black Panther, it’s the malevolent Orm who sits on the throne while Arthur is the outsider living in exile. Unlike Killmonger in Black Panther, moreover, Arthur wants nothing to do with Atlantis or his royal heritage (he’s got a major Aragorn complex).
Aquaman starts out unpromisingly enough. From the prologue, depicting the brief, star-crossed romance of Arthur’s parents in the wake of his mother’s attempt to flee an arranged marriage, to early action sequences involving submarines, the first act is pretty rote and surprise-free.
When Mera (Amber Heard), a red-tressed submariner from the undersea kingdom of Xebel, comes looking for Arthur, hoping he will challenge his brother for the throne and avert war with the surface world, Arthur initially wants nothing to do with it.
Things get more interesting when Arthur winds up being taken in chains, much like his mother years earlier, to Atlantis.
There’s an abrupt tonal shift as Arthur and Mera escape from Atlantis and embark on a quest for the fabled Trident of Atlan. In this Arthurian mythos, this is the equivalent of Excalibur, and would establish Aquaman not only as the rightful king of Atlantis, but as the master of the seven seas.
Here Aquaman improbably morphs into what feels more like an Indiana Jones sequel — or more precisely a Brendan Fraser Mummy movie — with the action moving from an underground desert crypt to a picturesque Sicilian coastal village. A lucidly directed and edited rooftop chase sequence pitting Mera against a tough but fragile opponent is a highlight in a film where a lot of the action is underwater.
Moving into the third act, the tone shifts again into full-on mythic mode. Aquaman faces an ordeal that goes to the heart of what heroism is as well as the nature of his claim to the throne.
In the climax, the parallels with Black Panther almost function as a rebuke to the earlier film. Black Panther was efficient and elegant where Aquaman is clunky and awkward; but by the same token Aquaman is wondrous and powerful where Black Panther is functional at best.
There are a half-dozen characters in Black Panther I care about more than I do anyone in Aquaman. But where Black Panther’s big climactic CGI battle was that film’s least interesting sequence, in Aquaman it’s a finale of preposterous grandeur, with leviathans and sea monsters that are a credit to Wan’s horror background. The final duel, too, is more satisfying on a number of levels, from what happens to why and how it happens to what happens afterward.
Like Thor in his first outing, Aquaman must prove himself worthy to wield an all-powerful weapon — but where Thor basically whiffed on what worthiness is all about, Aquaman proposes a ringing answer. There’s also moral progression from an early set piece in which, with fateful consequences, a heedless Arthur shows no mercy to an enemy (“Ask the sea for mercy,” he sneers) to the very different note of the denouement.
One thing is missing from this mythology: some representation of transcendent reality. Wonder Woman had the classical Greek gods, and Black Panther’s story started with a panther goddess and depicted mystical encounters with departed ancestors. Aquaman has a throwaway line about “the gods” making known their will through combat, but no thought went into this.
Aquaman is kind of a mess, but at its best it’s a glorious mess in a way that few popcorn movies these days are glorious. Roast it as much as you like, there is still joy to be had here.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense action violence; romantic complications; some crude language and swearing. Teens and up.