Genre: Superhero Running Time: 2 hrs. 4 min.
Release Date: December 22nd, 2023 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: James Wan Actors: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison, Martin Short, Jani Zhao
he Warner Bros. and DC logos are off to a great start with watery effects and fishy denizens wriggling about, but the aura is immediately shattered when Aquaman (Jason Momoa) rides into the frame upon a giant seahorse to fight pirates hijacking a ship. The inevitable clash, which sees baddies tossed about like ragdolls as the demigod-of-sorts strikes poses and wields a golden trident, is exceptionally cheesy, even if it’s broken up by humorous cuts to Aquaman’s family life – hoping to ease viewers into the general silliness of his dual existence. Superman and Batman still exist, but their likes simply don’t fit well into the underwater realms of Atlantis, where all sorts of fish-human hybrids reside in complex, thriving societies.
Aquaman (aka Arthur Curry) now has a kid, along with a bride, though inexplicably, the toddler spends most of his time on land with Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), Arthur’s father. Even though the chubby-cheeked child harbors secret powers (much like the baby from “The Incredibles”), apparently he can’t remain in Atlantis, where breathing oxygen solely through lungs is a bit of a problem. It isn’t all that exciting, anyway, as Aquaman finds himself serving as a king, tending to royal responsibilities and negotiating with the Council of Houses, stuck at loggerheads over political intricacies. But domestic life is also a drag, despite Tom insisting that family is so, so important.
If the monotonies of child-rearing and diplomacy weren’t enough to stop this superhero’s chance at diverting audiences, the source of villainy proves to be just as bland. Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is back, still seeking vengeance, while power-hungry brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) must be retrieved to aid in unearthing planet-destroying plans (“You’re the only one who can help me”) – recreating a dynamic not unlike Thor and Loki, which is made weirder and more obvious when Arthur actually calls his brother “Loki.” “Thank god for global warming!”
The introduction moves rapidly due to a flurry of action – or, at least, movement, augmented by sound effects and music and visual chaos that overtakes the screen. Engaging locations (set designs are cavernous and inventive) and countless monsters momentarily build interest, but it’s not long before the humdrum story begins to weigh heavily on the actual entertainment value; the antagonists randomly locate exactly what is needed to gain powers to combat Aquaman, like an unsubtle Kryptonite counterpart (a sonic cannon is the worst, as if no one has prepared defenses for such a device, despite all the seemingly advanced laser blasters being utilized by common soldiers). Even the commentary on the genuine ways in which surface-dwellers are devastating the oceans – including increasing the acidity of the water and contributing to environments that feed toxic algae blooms – doesn’t inspire much amusement, as it’s so markedly supplemented by spontaneously conjured nonsense. A volatile fuel called Orichalcum, along with all sorts of ancient alien technology and the histories of dark magic spells cast with blood to produce instruments of evil, are too far generic and convenient. Rather than building up the creativity of the various undersea worlds, these kinds of flat explanations and contrived weapons only work to tear them down.
Also detrimental is the overabundance of CG shots. Virtually all of the scenes involving computer-animated humanoid figures are terribly unconvincing. Physics and realistic movements are wholly ignored. Duels, full of obnoxious banter (the villains tend to stall, pose, and quip, allowing the heroes exactly enough time to escape or strike), become even goofier, while the general invincibility exhibited by everyone (including puny humans) dulls any sense of urgency or vulnerability. Slick visuals can’t compensate for an absolute mess of a plot, further diminished by insipid protagonists (Arthur is basically a muscly moron, or a “krill-brain”) and rage-blinded antagonists – driven less by a sense of having been wronged and more by a supernatural possession by a demonic spirit.
Ultimately, none of this is new; explosions and destruction and sweeping skirmishes between armies of mer-people grow tiresome quite quickly, especially when the characters are too dull to generate any concern or sympathy. The entire affair is so painfully formulaic, predictable, and unoriginal (Martin Short lends his voice to a straight rip-off of Jabba the Hutt) that it feels as if a “Fast and Furious” film staged underwater. An infiltration and espionage octopus serves as comic relief, but provides almost none; Manta accidentally fails to lock the door to his office no less than three times, enabling a timid scientist to overhear his machinations; it isn’t always apparent just how much Mera’s (Amber Heard) role has been reduced, since Aquaman and Orm eat up the majority of screentime in a mawkish bromance overflowing with flavorless dialogue; and the irrelevancy of this entire episode, which begins and ends having changed absolutely nothing, nags in the background of every misadventure. And an excruciatingly derivative parting shot adds to the sense that DC is abandoning everything built up so far in their Extended Universe, realizing that their storylines are fizzling rather than gathering steam toward some “Avenges: Infinity War”-level of cross-movie mash-up. “I knew you would do this!”
– Mike Massie
The DC Extended Universe