It is perhaps a measure of director James Wan’s baseless optimism regarding his vision for Aquaman that, partway through its bloated bulk, he gives himself licence to play a Pitbull cover of Totò’s Africa as his characters enter the Sahara desert. This can only have been the culmination of a series of decisions that are almost bafflingly bad, couched in the belief that simply by being less dour than DC’s previous films this entry will have somehow earned the right to be glib.
The tone of the film suggests that Wan and his team genuinely supposed that this was an original and hilarious idea, rather than a joke so obvious and painful that decades of films have passed over it. Throughout Aquaman jokes and quips suggest that its five (five!) writers overestimated their own inventiveness, just as they misjudged the visual department’s ability to bail them out.
Jason Momoa is Arthur Currie, Aquaman himself – the briefly-featured but memorable (in strictly relative terms) member of DC’s nascent, potentially doomed Justice League. He’s a genetically confusing half-Atlantean, fated to return to that sunken kingdom to thwart its maniacal ruler, his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson). Despite having featured in Justice League, Arthur is is need of an origin story, DC feel.
In fact, with Wan at the helm, they’ve gone ahead and just jammed two equally mishapen films into one. Arthur learns about his ancestry, discovers the existence of a fateful trinket and journeys to earn it, all while also resolving a decades-long conflict underwater and averting a full-on assault against the surface world. The story is tiresome, and bloated to the extreme, reminiscent of a beached whale threatening to explode with gasses if prodded too hard. Bursting at the seams, but not in a good way.
Perhaps the two stickiest criticisms of DC’s film universe have been of its relentlessly grim colour palette paired with its bizarre addiction to CGI climaxes of preposterous scale. Aquaman suggests that lessons have been learnt, but no deeper than on the surface. Wan’s world is, at least, colourful. Atlantis is generic and pointlessly sprawling, but it is distractingly full of neons and bizarre glowing structures. So, kudos is owed to the concept art team behind it.
True to DC form, a range of initially amusing war-seahorses and cavalry sharks come together in a CGI nightmare of a final battle, different from its predecessors only because it is underwater and therefore more blue. DC and Marvel, in its duller moments, are both guilty of resorting to scale, constantly trying to up the ante by just making everything bigger. It doesn’t work, in short. That Aquaman’s own triumph involves killing so very many of his own citizens is a feature of the battle that is sadly representative of the film’s wider idiocy.
All this comes loaded with the cumbersome additions of a bemusingly time-consuming side story involving unconvincing baddie Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a gurning non-performance from Willem Dafoe, and a preposterously luminous wig forced on the admittedly game Amber Heard.
Another embarrassment of squandered Warner Brothers riches, Aquaman bodes badly for the DCU. If this is their attempt to be fun and lighthearted, their cinematic legacy is guaranteed to sink without a trace.