When FilmFisher’s managing editor Timothy Lawrence asked me to review Aquaman, I groaned. I had only seen one DC film since Man of Steel (which I loathe), and that was the Marvel-esque Wonder Woman. I have heard tales of how Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and Justice League are incredibly awful. Therefore I was not excited to have to watch their latest film about a notoriously lame superhero (yeah, I know there are some people that swear Aquaman is cool, but I personally find Mermaid Man a more exciting super – yes, the old guy from Spongebob). I was going to say no, but then he offered to see it with me, and for some reason, that was enough.
So here I am. Reviewing the latest superhero box office smash. Hoo-ray. At least it’s not another Marvel movie though, I thought to myself before going into the theater. It can’t be that bad, the LEGO Movie was expected to be bad, and it turned out to be one of the best movies of the decade. It wasn’t. My false hope only served to increase the post-film despair of having wasted two-and-a-half hours of my life and now another couple hours writing this review.
If you are reading this review to determine if you should spend your hard-earned money on a ticket to Aquaman: obviously you shouldn’t go see it. From what I have written above, you might be tempted to see it because it’s so bad, but trust me, it’s not a movie that’s “so bad it’s good.” You might also think that what’s written above is hyperbole and that you should see it and make a determination for yourself, but trust me, it’s not hyperbole. If you are not going to trust me, at least wait until the movie is available on a streaming service. Go watch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse instead.
I suppose now that I’ve bashed the film and told you not to watch it, I have to defend myself. But boy, I really don’t want to think about this film anymore. It’s not morally appalling like last year’s Shape of Water, but it’s about as bad as possible in every other way. One of the more obvious things that boggles my mind is the film’s campiness. This is not usually a bad thing, though it is one that modern audiences tend to react fairly negatively towards, and I cannot understand why the Aquaman moviegoer tolerates it for this film, and not in films blamed for the same issues a decade ago: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy come to mind in particular. Campiness in itself is not bad; heck, I hail both previously mentioned trilogies as some of the best cinema of all time and they have a sizable amount of camp in them. No, the issue with Aquaman’s flavor of farcicleness is two-fold: its insincerity and its ubiquity in all aspects of the film.
Both the prequel trilogy and the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy work because they are earnest. They actually care about the stories they are telling. They both work with multiple complicated ideas and display them in a way that is both clear and a joy to watch. Yes, the dialogue isn’t as eloquent as Shakespeare, and the action can be a bit over-the-top, but these films never try to be something they are not. Aquaman, on the other hand, tries to have its cake and eat it too. Instead of owning its silliness, it undermines itself by having its main characters tell these Marvel-imitating jokes poking fun at the story or how ridiculous the main villain is. Ironically, the best parts of this film are the performances of Willem Dafoe and Temuera Morrison, who played the role of the villains Norman Osborn and Jango Fett in Spider-Man and Attack of the Clones respectively. Both characters play a father and a father-figure to our titular hero. Coincidentally, in their respective roles in Spider-Man and Star Wars, they both play a father and father-figure to sons who would grow up to be villains. Perhaps James Wan, Anne McCarthy, and Kellie Roy are trying to tell us that Aquaman is really a villain.Pictured: Black Manta
The other issue that really makes the campiness of Aquaman into a problem is that it is pervasive on every level: the plot, the dialogue, the characters, the acting, the world-building, and, especially, the costuming. Our two main villains (yeah, there are two villains in this film that are pretty much unrelated to one another) are quite possibly the worst offenders: one has a costume that would look at home in a budget 1950s Sci-Fi television special and goes by the moniker Black Manta; the other is sort-of the King of Atlantis, but what he really wants is to become the Ocean Master. Other issues abound as well: odd pop songs that throw off any atmosphere that the film had detract from the otherwise forgetful soundtrack. A plot that would have otherwise had a simple, Campbellian structure has a meaningless sub-plot added in giving us the origin of Black Manta. And extremely wooden performances by the two leads rounds off this dud of a box-office success.
If you have already seen Aquaman this holiday season and enjoyed it, more power to you. For the rest of you, avoid this film at all costs. It is not “just plain fun,” and it is not “so bad it’s good.” It’s just bad.