CULTURE & ARTS
12/21/2018 17:29 EST

'Aquaman' Isn't Cheesy Enough

We're not sure where Aquaman ends and Jason Momoa begins. Or what's going on with Patrick Wilson's Hair. We just wish there was more cheese.

Warner Bros.
Will "Aquaman" sink or swim?

After a slew of dark, emotional, brooding films, one of which ended with Superman dead in a coffin (eat your heart out, “Infinity War”),“Aquaman” has seemingly been billed as DC’s irreverent, ridiculous chance to be fun again.

The movie finds Jason Momoa, our titular Aquaman/Arthur Curry, living life as a hero, which apparently means fighting on a submarine one minute and getting wasted with your lighthouse keeper dad (Temuera Morrison) the next. But the hero life never lasts long. Eventually, fellow aqua-person Mera (Amber Heard) shows up to inform Arthur that his Atlantean half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is trying to wage war on the surface. After Orm throws all the trash in the ocean back at the people on land, nearly killing Aquaman’s human dad in the process, Arthur has no choice but to respond.

The fish-man at the heart of the “Aquaman” comics was little more than a punchline on “The Big Bang Theory” before DC decided to kickstart his movie franchise moment. From the moment the first trailer for James Wan’s take on the story premiered at San Diego Comic-Con, it seemed like we’d finally get a character who’d lean into that jokey past and subvert the usually desolate Justice League expectations, and maybe even get cheesy for cheese’s sake.

So, did the final product sink or swim? Reporters Matt Jacobs and Bill Bradley discuss:

Bill Bradley: Permission to come aboard? Matt, we’ve both seen “Aquaman.” What were you expecting? Did the movie live up to everything you dreamed?

Matt Jacobs: “Aquaman” hasn’t exactly assumed a large presence in my dreams, but what I expected ― perhaps owed to my limited imagination ― was a grim version of “The Little Mermaid.” Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter, right? In some ways, I wasn’t wrong. Except I’m not sure things are better underwater, at least not in this universe. The fish-people community is divided, and instead of Ursula, we get a bleach-blond Patrick Wilson and monsters that are part crab, part Godzilla.

To say this movie isn’t my thing would be an understatement. But I didn’t hate it. Your expectations were higher, so did it live up?

Bill: Well, there was an octopus playing drums, so “Little Mermaid” isn’t too far off. What did I like best? I’ve never done mushrooms or anything, but I imagine if I did and then stuck my head underwater, I’d see a live version of the “Aquaman” movie play out in front of my eyes, and I’m into that. Going into this, I just wanted “Aquaman” to not be terrible. I knew Momoa’s Arthur Curry and Patrick Wilson’s antagonist Orm were brothers, but as long as their mom wasn’t named Martha, I was going to be OK. And she wasn’t! Instead she was Nicole Kidman. So already it started out on the right foot (flipper?) for me.

Overall, when the movie leaned into its cheesiness ― like the aforementioned octopus scene or when Momoa broke into the sub and was all like, “Permission to come aboard?” ― those were my favorite parts. As for the movie itself, for me, it didn’t flounder. (It’s only so often you get to use all these “Little Mermaid” puns.) But let’s not breeze by Nicole Kidman, aka Aquaman’s Aquamom Atlanna. She’s not in this film a lot, but the whole thing really starts with her. How’d you feel about her performance?  

Warner Bros.
Aquamom Nicole Kidman in action.

Matt: You know Nicole Kidman is all I want to talk about, so thanks for asking. I was going to wait to unleash my fieriest trident, but might as well get it out of the way: This movie wastes Kidman, a sin so egregious that I would banish James Wan to the Sahara. After the first 10 minutes, which speeds through Aquaman’s birth story, she doesn’t return until it’s almost time for the final battle. There’s good reason for that, but it leaves Kidman without anything interesting to do. She introduces the plot with some fish-out-of-water humor (literally) and then wraps it up with world-saving mommy drama, but really she’s only there as a device.

One thing we can count on from superhero movies is veteran actresses stealing the show: Cate Blanchett’s campy villain in “Thor: Ragnarok,” Angela Bassett’s regal matron in “Black Panther,” Tilda Swinton’s mystical sage in “Doctor Strange.” They all get to have fun with some snappy dialogue, or at least wear nice couture, but Kidman’s only highlight is a shimmery robe. I’ll never forgive “Aquaman” for this.

Bill: Your trident was not used in vain. (And I think it’s probably not an accident all the movies you cited are Marvel movies, not DC.) I agree to a degree. I get that the movie is “Aquaman,” not “Aquamom,” but Kidman really doesn’t have a lot to do other than fall in love with the guy who played Jango Fett and later show up on an island that seems straight out of “Jurassic Park 2,” which is, you once told me, not even the good “Jurassic Park” sequel. But “JP 2” did have a scene where a raptor gets killed just by the power of gymnastics, which gets a 10 out of 10 every time if I’m judging. All this to say, I’d be into a spinoff of Kidman’s adventures on the island. Life finds a way to include more Nicole Kidman. 

After her introduction, however, we do get to meet Aquaman, and I think Nicole and Jango taught him well because Jason Momoa is just Jason Momoa throughout this movie. Where do you think Aquaman ends and Jason Momoa begins?

Matt: The only thing Aquaman has that Jason Momoa doesn’t, I assume, is a heavy-metal guitar riff that plays when he shows up.

I don’t think the movie lets Momoa achieve his full charisma. But not for lack of trying; there’s a weird tonal thing going on that he can’t seem to get his head around. “Aquaman” isn’t as dour or self-serious as other DC movies, but it also can’t sustain the winky almost-parody it intermittently attempts. Every time it comes close to twisting the genre, it reverts back to formula. Momoa is caught somewhere in the middle, his brawn left to do all the work.

How does Momoa rate for you? I know you’re relieved that DC is moving away from the relentless “Batman v Superman” mold — did “Aquaman” swim far enough?

Warner Bros
Is it better where it's wetter?

Bill: I actually wouldn’t doubt that there’s a guitar riff when Jason Momoa walks into a room.

Whenever Momoa is allowed to be himself, I think the movie works. It’s when everything defaults to more of a structured story that it doesn’t. Just let Jason Momoa joke about peeing on the ancient artifact in order to discover the trident, and you’re gonna be OK.

What I really didn’t get was why Aquaman and Orm seem to just stop fighting whenever the opponent’s trident is broken. Like, that’s the end of the match. I feel like Khal Drogo is even more intimidating in hand-to-hand combat.

Matt: Khal Drogo is far fiercer, and he’s not even a superhero.

You’re right about the tone in relation to the movie’s structure. “Aquaman” works best in its wackiest moments, but it seems afraid to drift too far toward the zany deep end, probably for fear of not being taken seriously. I hate how much of its world-building gets shortchanged. Wan speeds through the various underwater kingdoms, sending us in one direction after the next, only to lay methodical groundwork that moves the plot from Objective A to Objective B to Objective Z. Every slice of originality is upended by the genre’s formula. That’s where my “Little Mermaid” hopes end; it lacks the quirks or the gravity to feel special ― and that’s a shame because, despite wall-to-wall CGI, its sparkly and crisp aesthetics are engaging.

Let’s get back to Patrick Wilson, whose hair in this movie is unforgivable. You mentioned Orm’s powers; what do you think of him as a villain? He wants to unite the kingdoms in a war against the land, largely because humans polluted the sea. In a sense, he’s an environmentalist. Can’t hate that. But man is he dull. And that hair!

Bill: Patrick Wilson? I assume you’re talking about underwater Draco Malfoy? I felt at any moment he could blurt out a surly, “Potter,” which would’ve made me say, “10 points to ‘Aquaman.’” Slick-back aside, I totally agree about the movie being very conscious of not getting too ridiculous, likely because Aquaman has pretty much been considered a joke until now. James Wan even supposedly cut a scene involving a prison riot and shark guards because it was too weird. 

As far as performances, I didn’t really have a problem with Wilson’s. I also didn’t really get why, all of a sudden, his war is on. Did the Dark Lord return and make him agree to an unbreakable vow? Not sure. One of the most disappointing things for me wasn’t necessarily how the movie used Wilson, but more how it didn’t use Randall Park. He has one scene early on where he’s this conspiracy theorist who’s actually right about the aqua-people rising up, and then he’s basically not in it at all. What changes do you think would’ve made “Aquaman” a stronger movie for you?

Matt: Randall Park! I forgot he was even in the movie. His character’s theory — that the Atlanteans will eventually attack — attempts to give “Aquaman” real-world stakes, seeing as he announces it on a cable-news broadcast. But the threat barely rises to the surface, so to speak. Because the conflict as we see it exists in the mer-world, we don’t get the full scope of its ramifications on the humans Orm is targeting. And that shortchanges what is actually an interesting conceit: Aquaman is the ideal ruler because he belongs to the ocean and the land — to borrow another “Harry Potter” reference, he’s a Mudblood — and because he (unlike Orm) isn’t interested in waging war on a part of the globe he doesn’t understand.

There’s a “Black Panther”-esque quandary in there about who makes for a good monarch and what happens when tribes isolate themselves from one another. But “Aquaman” won’t commit to such pointed politics, so it sticks goofy guitar riffs and theatrical whiparounds in so we don’t question the philosophy too much.

That’s what would have made it better for me: Pick a lane! This was a chance to make a superhero movie that’s quirky and idiosyncratic but doesn’t resort to full-on parody like “Deadpool.” But it just sort of sinks in the middle. Also, the camera spins too much; it’s often revolving around the action, as if Wan doesn’t know how else to create movement. I do like the way the underwater outfits ripple like gills, though, and I appreciate that it isn’t working overtime to set up some DC Universe sequel.

OK, enough griping. Where do you rank the movie on this year’s superhero roster? Is it something you see yourself rewatching down the line? 

Bill: I’d give “Aquaman” six out of a possible 10 starfish. It’s not going to rank up there with “Black Panther” or “Infinity War” on the year’s ranking for me, but of course I’d watch it again. I’m an Aqua-fan. I think Julie Andrews is one too, since she ditched a cameo in the “Mary Poppins” reboot to voice a giant tentacled kaiju in “Aquaman.” 

It’d be great if the movie was even cheesier and more ridiculous: “Give us the Zack Snyder/James Wan Shark guard riot cut!” But let’s focus on what we do have: Hella sweet guitar riff entrances; a wild fight across Sicily where I’d like to add Aquaman does sustain a very Khal-Drogo-like injury at the hands of Black Manta; a final battle that looks like a laser-filled EDM concert full of shrimp hors d’oeuvres come to life; Jason Momoa escaping danger in the mouth of a whale; underwater Malfoy; Jason Momoa taking on a swarm of mutant trench monsters; a biker gang selfie scene; Nicole Kidman in a “Jurassic Park 2” remake; and, wait, can I mention one more time Julie Andrews voicing a giant sea monster ... in a movie opening on the same weekend as the “Mary Poppins” reboot she rejected? That’s cold. That’s Genovia. That’s “Aquaman.” 

Matt: You make a good case, Bill. I’m obsessed with Julie Andrews saying she turned down the new “Mary Poppins” so she wouldn’t take attention away from Emily Blunt when we all know she was just like, “Nah, no thanks, don’t need it.” And then she shows up (kind of) in “Aquaman” of all things! As Arthur Curry himself said, life has a way of bringing people together. But really. What’s up with Patrick Wilson’s hair?

This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.