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.
It’s takes an immense amount of work to bring all this to life, and the computer graphics are pushed to their limits. We’ve seen creatures, cities, and ships before, and all are done well. But the real challenge comes from the water itself. While I said that certain liberties were taken, and most physics ignored, the human brain can only really suspend so much disbelief. Therefore, things like how the characters’ hair ripples and undulates in the water adds to the sense of being there, and the details in such are incredibly minute.
The same thought really goes into delving into the biology of the people and the source of their powers: for example, their superhuman strength is acknowledged by the need for a sturdy body that can survive the crushing depths of the ocean floor. The fact that the ability to breath underwater is an evolutionary byproduct leads to the interesting note that not all sea-dwellers can also breathe air. As for the more outlandish powers, they are treated not as jokes but as unique and elite skills. Arthur’s ability to communicate with sea life is vital to the story and sets him apart from his kin, as does Mera’s water-bending abilities. It all adds up to present these powers as legitimate and necessary, and dampens (pun intended) their otherwise dismissible bizarreness.
All said and done, Aquaman isn’t particularly original in its plot, but then again, if we’re honest, neither was Wonder Woman. But what makes both so entertaining is the commitment to crafting a fascinating world and populating it with sympathetic and relatable people on an exciting adventure. The actors cement the universe, and the script holds enough dramatic stakes and emotional conflict to keep us invested. The action is thrilling and fun, and the humor hits all the right notes. While DC has a long way to go to rival Marvel, films like Aquaman prove it’s in the running. And if it can sustain its balance and keep its focus, it may do what all great heroes eventually do: find a path back to redemption.
YANG: Bird Box
Netflix continues its crusade to elevate itself from mere platform to full-fledged studio. And with the attention that its latest release is garnering across the interwebs, it seems like those efforts are paying off. But I can’t help but wonder if the hype is due more to the novelty of a new major player than to the actual content. Because while Bird Box is a fairly interesting and decently crafted film, it’s not really anything to write home about.
Basically, we’ve seen all this a million times before. Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic thriller that follows heroine Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and a motley crew of survivors of a deadly menace who are promised that ever-enticing sanctuary in the distance if only they can survive the perilous journey to reach it. Not only is there nothing really new in that, it’s basically standard operating procedure for all such films.
The unique hook here is that they have to do it blind. Ok, fair enough. Nice twist.
Of course, audiences are immediately decrying that as derivative of this year’s A Quiet Place. But really, that seems to be a matter of timing, as Bird Box is based on a novel from 2014; so arguably, Krasinski should be the one under cross examination here. But regardless, it doesn’t matter, as it’s not so much the idea that’s important as the execution, and here, Bird Box is solid if relatively standard fare.
The film is told in a somewhat non-linear style, bouncing between the past and present. As the crisis initiates, Malorie is several months into her first pregnancy, and we follow her along until she finally gives birth just as her companions begin to drop off. Such vulnerability certainly ups the stakes, but the movie’s strength really lies in its atmosphere and characters, and in those Danish director Susanne Bier seems most at home. The evil entity that has encompassed the globe and drives all who see it mad enough to commit immediate suicide is never really shown, adding to the air of mystery, but also feeling like something of a cheat for the audience (though apparently, a scene was shot that showed the creatures as laughably ridiculous in form, and thus was mercifully cut). Still, the threat is real and significant, and Bier presents several horrific scenes to punctuate the fact and keep the danger ever-lurking.
The true key, however, is in the blind hook, and there’s a nice level of tension built less around watching the characters stumble sightlessly than in the fear that they’ll remove their blindfolds and actually look. Somewhat disappointingly, the characters are only required to be sightless when outside their safe houses or in the open air, and thus only about 30-40% of the film keeps them blind. The rest of the time they operate normally, or come up with clever ways to travel without the use of their eyes. This means that much of the danger must come to them, diluting it somewhat. Still, as Malorie and her two young children eventually brave the dangerous river toward their refuge, they must do it blindfolded . . . which to be honest, comes across a lot easier than I would have imagined, save for the rapids. Thus the conceit is given its fair due, but does ultimately have a sense of playing it somewhat safe, not pushing the idea to the vulnerable extreme that it might have.
With all that said, none of it is worth a damn if you don’t care about the characters, and fortunately all are well-developed and distinct. Sandra Bullock leads the way with yet another impressive performance. Despite Malorie’s strong anti-social, pessimistic streak, she still rises to the challenge of becoming a pseudo leader to the misfit group surrounding her. It’s also unique to show a mother essentially dreading the upcoming birth, and her distant, hardnosed parental style extenuates the duality of her reclusive desires versus her compulsory governance. Bullock tows the line with her typical skill, but it’s a harder edge than we’re used to with her, which only emphasizes her range. Still, she’s so undeniably watchable that we feel her tragedy and root for her ultimate success.
Relative newcomer Trevante Rhodes (one of the very few highlights of the recent The Predator), steps up as Tom, the level-headed organizer and love interest for Malorie. Demonstrating a firm but gentle hand, Rhodes exudes a warmth that instantly appeals coupled with an experience and intelligence that makes him a natural leader. He charms slowly, building a trust with the skittish Malorie in order to secure a believable relationship. But most importantly, he is the optimistic balance to Malorie’s pessimism, and in turn teaches her how to open up and hope, and extend that hope to the children when they need it most. It’s quite possibly a star-making turn for Rhodes, who likely has a very bright future ahead.
The remaining cast is as impressive a list as you’ll find, including John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, Parminder Nagra, and even a cameo by Sarah Paulson as Malorie’s sister (reuniting her and Bullock after their recent turn in Ocean’s 8). Malkovich has the biggest role as Douglas, the requisite asshole of the group. Again, it’s a fairly standard part, but in Malkovich’s hands, elevates to something despicably endearing. Each actor in turn brings their A-game, cementing you in the reality of the situation and in the emotional consequences thereof.
But really, there’s little more to be said. The movie is standard post-apocalyptic fare with a twist that is interesting but slightly underutilized. The acting is solid and the characters effectively developed, but save for Malorie no one stands out as particularly unique. The atmosphere is thick with tension, but somewhat diluted by the fact that the danger must come to them, and while that certainly happens, it means the survivors are relatively safe the majority of the time. When Malorie and her children do ultimately venture out, they seem well prepared and, with few exceptions, encounter little significant danger most of the way. The ending is far rosier than the proceedings would have suggested, giving it a positive yet somewhat anti-climactic feel.
So where does that leave us? Well, pretty much with a decent effort, but certainly nothing worth the excessive hype it seems to be generating. It’s a solid film, and worth the view if you’re looking for a benign thriller to pass a night, but I doubt many will bother to rewatch it, or will even recall it years down the line. Still, I tip my hat to Netflix, as they are truly putting forth the effort to legitimately compete with the powerhouse studios, and as long as they keep trying, we’ll keep watching.