You can almost visualise the scene during the Warner Bros board meetings. Panic grips those in attendance as the assembled suits come to terms with the scale of the latest critical and commercial success over at Disney. The House of Mouse has just pulled another record-breaking hit out of thin air, and they’re picking up Oscar nominations in decent categories, too. There seems to be steam shooting out of the ears of at least half of the people in attendance as they regard the relative troubles of their comic book property. What do we do? The panicked expressions on weary faces seem to say.
Warner Bros was slow out of the traps, were late establishing their own interconnected universe of movies and seem to be losing more ground to Disney and Marvel by the month. Each new entry in the DC Extended Universe feels like an exercise in damage control and a desperate attempt to eat up some ground in a rigged game of catch-up. Before the press screening of Batman v Superman, co-lead Henry Cavill literally asked those in attendance what the studio should do to make the DC movies better. The chopping and changing and tonal inconsistencies of both Suicide Squad and Justice League suggest a studio that is constantly tacking into the wind but unable to settle on an ultimate destination. Wonder Woman did an admirable job of getting things back on track, before some of the good work was undone by Justice League.
The sixth movie in the DC Extended universe is possibly the strangest beast yet. It’s such an oddly tangled mess, that it seems to exist within its own state of contradiction. It’s a movie that simultaneously watches like the creation of a single, relentlessly driven madman, and the laboured product of an entire committee of businessmen. Having sat through it twice now, it’s genuinely difficult to know which of the three or four movies that seem to going on side-by-side, to like, or indeed dislike, the most.
You can’t shake the feeling that something is out of place, here. We’re going forwards in the timeline and in terms of universe building, but backwards to an origin-story-of-sorts for a character that played a major part in the previous movie, was mentioned in the one two movies before that, and already feels like part of the furniture. It’s a fleshing-out of the Arthur Curry character (Aquaman to you and me), who, let’s not forget, is already a member of the Justice League at this point, and an “embracing one’s destiny” arc. A prologue lets us know that Curry (Jason Momoa) is the product of an illicit relationship between a lonely lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the queen of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), on the lam from an arranged marriage. In the present, Arthur has blossomed into the breezily charming metahuman with a slight rock n’ roll vibe and a burgeoning worldwide profile for things superheros do. In the process of foiling an attack on a submarine, Aquaman makes an enemy of the pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Meanwhile, trouble is brewing under the ocean as Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson), half-brother of Arthur and ruler of Atlantis, enraged by humans’ disregard of the oceans and in response to what he sees is a growing threat, seeks to unite the underwater kingdoms in a preemptive attack on the surface world.
On the bright side, and I mean bright in the dazzling sense, there’s a visual vigour to this that has been sorely missing in the previous DC movies. Director James Wan appears to have a set his sights on building a world that beguiles visually, bringing the potential splendour of the comic book page to the screen. Atlantis is certainly a sight to behold: a wet vision of a cyberpunk future that’s a bio-luminescent wonderland, and a world away from the drab greys of dry-land DC outings. Some of the visuals are rough around the edges – floaty CGI hair is a constant distraction – but there has clearly been a concerted effort to provide something joyful for the eyes. Fish men clad in shining armour, riding sharks into battle against hordes of crab monsters makes for a baffling sight, but you appreciate the distinguishing effort: this is DC movie that is actually trying to be fun.
Less of a feast for senses is the half-dozen-or-so scripts that ride on the coat-tails of the bananas action set-pieces. There’s nothing like a satisfying narrative here, or any sense of coherence. Flashbacks into origin story territory sit side by side with plot threads revolving around revenge, lust for power, family strife, mythos, more revenge and late in the day introductions to whole underwater races that seem to have been totally forgotten until the moment they are needed in battle. Story-wise it’s a drag and the script is far too happy to leave poor Patrick Wilson looking like the biggest clown in the seven seas, gripping his proverbial trident and bellowing nonsense at an equally-bemused looking Dolph Lundgren sat on a giant seahorse.
It all amounts to something a little like a massively expensive visualisation of the sort of nightmares you’d have if you were struck down with an acute case of influenza. There’s a lot going on here. Too much, in fact.
Dir: James Wan
Scr: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman
Prd: Peter Safran, Rob Cowan
DOP: Don Burgess
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Runtime: 143 minutes
AQUAMAN is out on Digital Download April 6th and available on 4K UHD, 3D, Blu-ray™ and DVD April 8th