As the first DC film since the abject failure, critical and commercial, of Justice League, Aquaman releases with both low expectations and a lot to prove for this constantly faltering franchise, and it’s as muddled a film as this central paradox would suggest. Director James Wan tries to find a balance between a Lord of the Rings-esque epic with grand battles and deep lore and his own slick Fast and Furious films. Yet, Aquaman somehow ends up being more reminiscent of The Phantom Menace than anything else, unable to make any of its disparate plot points or design choices slot together satisfactorily.
After helping to save the world with Batman, Wonder Woman et al, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) has returned to his day job of heavy drinking and the occasional rescuing of sailors from pirates. He’s content, but drawn back into world-threatening drama when Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) comes to the surface to warn him of a cataclysmic war about to be launched by Orm (Patrick Wilson), king of the oceans and Arthur’s half-brother. Thus follows a quest for the very Macguffin-y Trident of Atlan, an ancient weapon that will grant Arthur the throne of Atlantis and prevent the war.
Even at nearly two and a half hours, David McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script feels painfully overstuffed, so it’s hard to care all that much about any one of the myriad plot threads, especially in the chaotic finale. Momoa and Heard have a very flat non-chemistry, so their questing together quickly becomes tedious, and neither really has the acting chops to anchor any sort of emotional arc. Momoa certainly looks the part of an amphibious superman, and is clearly having fun, but he’s yet to prove himself as a compelling leading man. An impressive supporting cast, including Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe, is given very little to do.
Perhaps most damagingly for a big dumb blockbuster – and, even by comic book movie standards, Aquaman is strikingly dumb – Aquaman is really ugly. Wan crafts the occasional engaging set-piece (an encounter with an army of savage humanoid fish monsters puts his horror experience on The Conjuring to good use), but his world-building and action direction is stymied by woeful effects work. The vast deep-sea wilds make for imposing backdrops, until we reach Atlantean civilization, where architecture and costumes are visually unappealing and the CGI looks unfinished. Orm’s throne room is particularly hideous, bright whites and horrible lighting making the whole area look like a placeholder texture from a videogame.
Aquaman isn’t quite at the level of 2018’s worst blockbusters like Venom and Crimes of Grindelwald – it has too much genuine imagination to induce anger like those more cynical cash-ins – but it’s very unlikely to be remembered beyond the release of the next MCU instalment. DC has more movies planned until at least summer 2020 but, if this is the quality we can expect them to stay at, it might just be better to call the whole thing quits now.