YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Aquaman / Bird Box
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
There’s no denying it, DC has had a tough run building their shared cinematic universe. And while much of the blame must be placed at the feet of the studios—and most directly at their misplaced faith in Zack Snyder—there’s no denying the possibilities are still there. Wonder Woman showed that when done right, both critics and audiences will show up in droves with bucketloads of praise. But it’s no easy task, and relatively speaking, telling the story of an omnipotent savior from the stars or a mighty goddess from Themiscyra is child’s play compared to convincing audiences to care for a dude who talks to fish. I mean, Aquaman has been the comic universe’s punching bag for decades, so much so even Entourage considered making a movie of it the most ridiculous scenario they could place their protagonist in.
So how do you get the world to take the king of the seven seas seriously? Well, first, you bring in Jason Momoa.
I recall first seeing the skinny heartthrob on Baywatch back in the day . . . and I was not impressed. That show was never a repository of great thespian talent, and Momoa seemed to fit right into that mold. But, credit where due, I suspect he started hitting the acting workshops about as hard as the gym, and as his biceps grew so did his talent, enough that by 2011 he blew us all away with his impressive turn as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones—and he didn’t even speak a word of English as the character!
The short-lived role laid the groundwork for the many that followed until someone had the crazy idea that Arthur Curry, the traditionally Aryan half-breed of Atlantis, could be played by a descendant of some of the greatest seafarers in history. It was a tough sell, to be sure, and though introduced briefly in the ignominious Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we didn’t get our first proper look at him until Justice League. The push in that film for a lighter tone meant we saw a rough-and-tumble Arthur with a playful, even immature, sense of humor. It didn’t always work, but it was clear that Momoa had talent, and that in the right hands, the character might be salvageable.
If I was a betting man, I would NOT have put my money on director James Wan to be those hands. While he has created worlds and franchises before, they have been almost exclusively gore-porn horror. How would this guy not only set up the environmental and cultural civilization of Atlantis, but basically set up the entire cinematic structure responsible for bringing it to the screen? No one has ever done an underwater movie of this scale, but the kid from Saw is gonna pull it off? Needless to say, I was skeptical.
The biggest hurdle for me, as I saw it, was how to maintain the physics of being underwater while allowing the actors to perform and the characters to properly interact. Well, the short answer is, you don’t. It’s a comic book film, and the creators seem to have fully embraced that. Justice League attempted a more rational approach by having characters create air-bubble pockets underneath the water in order to speak normally, a clever and satisfying solution. But when you start bringing in dozens, hundreds of characters scattered across the ocean floors that becomes untenable. So audiences are expected to suspend their disbelief in the science and just go with it, which isn’t that much of a stretch if you already accept breathing underwater, super swimming and strength, and water-bending control of H2O itself.
The storyline here isn’t particularly original. Arthur Curry, son of a human lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean queen, must embrace his true self as well as his mantle of power in order to stop a war between the two worlds. Odd as it may seem, it’s nothing we haven’t really seen before. But I always say, good stories are in how they are told. And from that perspective, the movie does an impressive and satisfying job of regaling us.
The tone is the key. With someone as both intimidating and gregarious as Momoa, you have to let that shine through, and the movie strikes that balance around him. It recognizes the absurdity of the overall idea, and rather than shy away from that, it embraces it without overemphasizing it. A few self-effacing quips here and there provide a knowing wink, and the reality of our world is grounded enough to be fully recognizable while just slightly askew enough to maintain its otherness. But the most effective tool is the characters’ attitudes to the environment and circumstances around them. No matter how ridiculous something may seem, the characters must always buy into it, and it’s their wholehearted acceptance and investment that makes us care. The creators do an excellent job of making sure each character is fully developed, with legitimate stakes in the outcome of events.
Momoa, naturally, leads the charge here, crafting Arthur Curry as a guy whose outward joie de vivre and flippancy mask his underlying hurt and rage. He can’t help but be a hero, though that’s not to say he comes at it fully realized. He makes plenty of mistakes, some serious with long-reaching consequences, but they serve to make him all the more human and if there must be a king, we can see why he’d be the perfect choice. Momoa quite deftly skates between humor, drama, and action, cementing his worth as a bona fide star. While plenty of people comment on his epic bod, he proves he’s got the chops to go with it, and it’s when he’s at his most sensitive that he feels the most relatable. It makes for a more everyman hero, someone who can both lift a submarine and yet is cool enough to have a beer with. It’s a tough line to tread, as proven by Justice League, but Aquaman gives him room to show all sides, and to create a more fully realized character that you can root for rather than ridicule.
As a superhero in her own right, Mera is finally brought to life by Amber Heard. The character has been making a resurgence of late as one of the more powerful female superheroes in the DC pantheon, given her ability to control water. Heard plays her as a self-assured leader, and something of a reluctant mentor to Curry. She is a fierce warrior and holds her own in many an action scene. Heard is a very underrated actress, and here she demonstrates her skills by imbuing Mera with a similar mix of bravado and sensitivity as Momoa does with Curry, helping to complement each other’s performances. Mera is given some hard choices, and we feel their impact. While certainly beautiful, she’s far more than eye candy, and plays a significant and vital part in the proceedings of the film and in taking Curry from hero to king.
As villains go, Patrick Wilson’s Orm may not endure as a classic, yet he does a serviceable job. Wilson tends to be very hit or miss, and seems an odd choice for the role, though he gives a serviceable performance. Orm’s motivations are clear, if a little clichéd, and while his command over the armies of the various groups makes him formidable, he lacks a certain physical intimidation against someone like Momoa.
A more fitting threat comes from the film’s secondary villain, the Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The setup of his hatred toward Aquaman is far more significant and impactful than I would have expected, making his journey for vengeance completely clear, if somewhat self-imposed, and ties in nicely to Curry’s journey to true hero. Mateen does the most with his screentime, and turns a fairly silly character into a genuine threat. Why silly? Have you seen that bug-eyed costume? The comic version is utterly laughable, but here, they find a scientific excuse for it, even if there is little explanation why Manta has the technical know-how to pull it off.
The remaining players are all wonderfully cast. Nicole Kidman brings her formidable history to add gravitas to her role as Arthur’s mother, Queen Atlanna, and even gets a chance to throw down with the bad guys. Star Wars’ Temuera Morrison is the logical choice to play Arthur’s human father, holding both the genetic and acting components to pull off the role. His love story with Atlanna is a beautifully touching addition to the action-fueled tale. Willem Defoe brings his signature physicality and off-kilter authority to the role of Vulko, trainer to Arthur and advisor to the royal house. And capping off quite a resurgence, Dolph Lundgren proves himself yet again, this time using his own dominating history to bring a regality to King Nereus. While the role is relatively small, he shines through with intelligence and holds his own amongst the bevy of acting talent around him.
While the characters are all run through their emotional paces, what really give the film scale is the development of the underwater universe. Atlantis is given a full history, told succinctly but clearly over the course of the film, and directly ties into the heroes’ adventures. The kingdom has evolved, like its inhabitants, over the many thousands of years to be a technological marvel on par with, say, Wakanda. And like that Marvel civilization, the people of Atlantis have found a way to turn an element into a source of unlimited power. But impressive as that is, Atlantis is but one lonely group. So the creators branch out into a total of seven other kingdoms, all with a unique design, history, and even evolutionary track all their own. These too play more than just as passing tidbits, contributing directly to the story and the stakes.