Where To Begin
I’ve never seen a film by James Wan. Be that as it may, I knew James Wan was going to make a stunning cinematic experience. This is someone who was brought in when Zack Snyder was creating his story. If Zack was confident in this man, I would be as well.
I’m very excited to say that this film is in a class of its own. I don’t mean only for the good moments either. The aspects of this film are so grand in scale that I’m impressed we witness everything we do in the 2 hours 23-minute film.
Let me say at the outset, that I am thankful for Zack seeing the future in Aquaman being taken seriously on film. I’m also thankful that we’ve seen films such as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. All 3 films have unique aspects that I feel compliment each other, that it would be unfair to even base comparison to one another. I believe judging these films should be viewed on their own, therefore, I will do my best to keep any similarities to a minimum. If the title wasn’t enough, spoilers for Aquaman will continue from here on out.
I felt splitting this review up in sections would suffice, however, that creates problems. Do I use elements of the film? Should I run through the film from beginning to end? Maybe what I should do, is write what I think works for the film and the story it’s telling. Then move on to what it might have missed. Then what I think would have improved the film drastically. I will write expecting you to know the characters I’m referring to since you’ve most likely seen the film already. Here we go.
The film opens with the story of how Queen Atlanna and Thomas Curry fall in love. The classic trope here is obvious. We’re meant to believe this is the first contact she makes with the surface world or at least with a Human. I would have preferred more relationship building to show exactly WHY Atlanna falls for Thomas, but that’s just me being selfish. What I mean is I could have enjoyed this film for an extra 20 minutes if it meant better exposition. I actually think James Wan knew some of this might create more dialogue than necessary, so Arthur’s voice-over takes care of it. Less dialogue means more action, and who wouldn’t want to see Atlanna kick ass in the beginning?
The Set Up For Queen Atlanna
In the first 5 minutes, we see King Orvax has sent his men to retrieve Atlanna. I’ll note that this is one of many jump attacks that happens in the film. This is one of the reasons that Wan creates a unique experience for us while watching the film. You can really feel his horror roots shine through in many ways.
Nicole Kidman not only handles her own during the scenes she’s in, but her action really sets the tone. Again, I’ve never seen a James Wan film, so I was really looking forward to how he would handle the action scenes. He proves within the first 5 minutes that he knows how to shoot fight scenes. I felt I had to dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge just to continue watching the fighting. After she handles all of the Atlantean soldiers, she tells Thomas that she has to leave. She also tells him that when it’s safe to return, that she’ll be at the dock at sunrise. Remember that.
Then we move to one of the coolest transitions of the film. As Atlanna dives into the ocean, we track along the sea and begin to follow fish, which then swim to unveil they’re in an aquarium. Now we’re with a young Arthur who, of course, is talking to some fish. The scene is reminiscent to when Clark gets bullied in Man Of Steel, however, Arthur shows the power of having the aquatic life as his back.
The Set Up For Black Manta
We move to the present day and are introduced to Black Manta himself. I enjoyed how Wan showed exactly why Manta is a villain. He’s commandeered a Russian naval vessel with his father and fellow pirates. Not only are they killing everyone in the sub, but he also does it with a ruthlessness usually reserved for R-Rated films.
The captain is brought in to see Manta, at which point his father says “Distress signal disabled. We’re running dark again”. The captain says “but they heard it. You can count on it.” Black Manta then intervenes and tells him “I’ll make you a deal. How about I won’t tell you how to captain. And you don’t tell me how to pirate?” followed by him killing the captain. The killing is shown on-screen, and there isn’t a quip to lighten the mood. I really appreciated that. We still aren’t aware why Manta is wanting this sub, however, we find out there is a reason.
To see Manta be a cold-blooded killer in the first 12 minutes, was a stellar introduction. Then, to see him have a heart to heart conversation with his father about an heirloom, was the kind of backstory reserved for primary villains. It made me realize that Manta would be a three-dimensional villain and not just a side-kick for Orm. I also knew this set up would lead to why Manta would have a conflict with Aquaman himself. We then hear that Aquaman is about to crash the hijacking and he does in style. Without going beat for beat, once Aquaman enters the sub, it’s his own personal “Warehouse Scene”. When the action starts showing him take out all of the pirates, it’s an enjoyable one.
That leads to Aquaman having his first one v one battle against Manta. His father saves the day, but in doing so, causes a massive torpedo to land on his legs. Immovable, Manta is forced to call for help to Arthur, who has obviously displayed Meta-Level strength. But then, in what I assume is a Batman Begins homage, Arthur tells him “You kill innocent people. You ask the Sea for Mercy.” Basically, his version of “I won’t kill you. But I don’t have to save you.”
Talk about a perfect set up for why Manta actually has it out for Arthur. In his last few moments, his father’s last request is “You need to live, so you can kill that son of a B****!” That’s powerful. And you can tell that Arthur shows no mercy, which is something that’s important for his character growth.
I realize I might sound vexatious when complaining about this, but how did Aquaman even know the sub was in danger? Sure, the captain said the distress signal got out, but unless Arthur had a radio, he wouldn’t know. The other thing that I noticed is that this was the only time we saw true violence in the action. By that, I mean people potentially dying from Arthur or anyone else not in a crowd.
Also, why has Manta been looking for Aquaman for a long time? From what we know, Arthur has been on the surface for much of his life. Even in Justice League, he was only helping people in Iceland. So why does Manta have it out for him BEFORE we see this interaction? Having him not save his father was plenty enough to understand why he would have a personal vendetta towards him.
The other thing I thought was odd, was that, unless I missed it, we never hear Mantas real name. For having the backstory of his grandfather being dubbed the “Manta” in World War I, we aren’t told much more. If they wanted to build on his lineage, I would have liked to have known his name. One last weird thing was the way Manta said “Damn You” to his father when he was forcing him to leave. Maybe Charleston Heston is to blame, but that line was delivered wrong.
Not much to say other than the humor in this scene felt odd. I get that the humor points were needed after seeing the murdered crew members, but they weren’t necessary. Aquaman saying “Ow” after getting blasted by Mantas father was fine. Arthur telling the Russians, who were hiding in a bunker, that they needed to hurry because he was missing happy hour wasn’t. Would they even get that context? Do they have happy hour in Russia?
I’m all for subtle exposition when the film wants to create it. But what really irked me was that I couldn’t understand why Aquaman was even around the sub. I also couldn’t understand what the sub was being hijacked for in the first place. Even a line of WHY they needed it would have tied it a little better to a latter part of the film. It’s almost as if something was missing. Oh, that’s right, we were supposed to see why he was heading for the sub. Ipso facto, this is why I suggest not watching Batman v Superman before watching Aquaman. That’s not a knock on either film, it’s just that if you’re looking for little clues like that, you won’t get them.
Now we see Arthur reunited with his father and how the past connects with the present. His father still waits at the dock for Atlanna to return. It’s a tender moment because it shows he still longs for her. That’s commitment. It also shows why Arthur would show up there and why he was in a hurry.
The humor in the next scene is well-earned. Arthur is having multiple drinks with his father when some men come up and ask him for a picture. It plays out nicely, especially since there’s nothing serious going on.
We also learn that national news is well aware of who Aquaman is and his father approves. It’s also our first indication of a thread that plays throughout the entire film. Thomas tells Arthur that he’s doing exactly what Vulko trained him to do. He’s a proud father and tells him that Atlanna always knew he was special. That he would be the one to unite their two worlds. If that doesn’t remind you of Supermans own journey, it should. The major difference here, is that Arthur is bitter towards Atlantis because he believes the King killed her. Thomas tells him that they don’t know that for sure. Again, it’s the first time we hear a character doubt the death of another. Also, we’ve never seen her body or funeral, so that should also indicate its possible she’s still alive.
The Set Up For King Orm
If I haven’t said it yet, the visuals in this film are unlike anything I’ve seen. When we’re introduced to King Nereus of Xebel meeting with King Orm, its comic book pages come to life. I really enjoyed the introduction of how important this meeting actually is. We learn that Orm has brought Nereus to the old ‘Council of The Kings’. A place where all of the 7 Kingdoms were one. That type of world building is exactly what I wasn’t expecting in a solo film, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Orm gives reason to Nereus that before King Atlan sank the great kingdoms, they were the most advanced civilization in the world. Now, they are set back in their ways based on outdated laws and the surface world poising their oceans. He makes a strong case that if they aren’t proactive, they could see their Kingdoms destroyed by the surface.
Of course, this is all a setup. King Orm knows that Xebel has the strongest army of the 7 Kingdoms. So his plan is to show King Nereus why he needs to join his cause. Nereus, unsure of his plan, blatantly tells him that Orm is just after his army. Without it, he wouldn’t be able to convince the other major 2 Kingdoms to join his cause, therefore, keeping him in a closed loop.
We all know that King Orm in the comics goes by ‘Ocean Master’. Will Beall does a fantastic job to create that moniker organically. When Vulko tells Nereus that he’d be the first to join King Orms alliance, I love how he calls him out on it. “As if you had a choice Vulko. By law, you need 4 of the 7 Kingdoms to descend an attack. The lost Nation and the Deserters have long perished. The Trench is nothing but animals. The Brine will never join you. And the Fishermen are cowards. Without me and my army to convince them, your plans are still-born. But I know what you really want. Once you’ve obtained the pledge of the 4 Kingdoms, you will be ordained ‘Ocean Master’.”
Once Orm tries to convince him that ‘Ocean Master’ is merely a title, Nereus then brings up his rightful claim to the throne. He knows of Arthur and how, if he wanted to, could claim the throne of Atlantis. This gives plenty of reason of why King Orm would have qualms with Arthur. It also shows us that while Arthur is the rightful heir, he’s never been to Atlantis. Again, all of this world building is phenomenal when considering we’ve never known of any of these Kingdoms until now. The ease at which the dialogue feels earned without sounding archaic is a pleasure on the ears.
The Good Continued
I wish I could say there were some bad moments in this introduction, but that’s not the case. Once we learn that King Orm is set on uniting the main Kingdoms, we’re hit with a surprise again. We see a sub launching an attack of missiles on their location. If you hadn’t already guessed, this is the same sub from earlier. Now we understand why Black Manta was taking it.
The moment I saw the sub, it all made sense of why King Orm chose the meeting spot in the first place. Even King Nereus commented on the place being too close to the surface in the beginning. With all of these coincidences, it makes sense that Orm was obviously doing what he could to give a reason for Nereus to join his alliance. Once Nereus had a reason to launch an assault on the surface, his plan was active.
The action with Orm taking out the sub is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s the perfect set up to show how Orm fights while riding his Tylosaur. After Nereus mounts his Sea Dragon, Orm tells him that the war has already begun. King Nereus then says “Then it’s time to send them a message they’ll hear” in true Drago form.
Mera Finds Arthur
This is the only part of the film that gives us the connection to any previous film outside of homages. I guess we’re meant to know who this person is because we have no context into why Mera’s looking for him. As a normal audience member, we don’t know why he’s reluctant to want to join her. He tells Mera that he’s already told Vulko no and that he’s going to tell her the same.
The odd thing is unless we’ve seen the end of the Snyder Cut of Justice League, we wouldn’t know why they went to him in the first place. So why even bring it up? This leads me to believe that this film actually follows the Snyder Cut more than just in the beginning with the sub. Mera mentions that Aquaman defeated Steppenwolf, and Aquaman says that it had nothing to do with Atlantis.
The entire conversation has nothing to do with Justice League, so there’s no reason to bring any of that up. It serves as the set up for why Mera needs Arthur to stop Orm from bringing war to the surface. He leaves and is brought face to face with what Orm is intending. Orm beaches all of the battleships in the oceans, along with the garbage in the sea. It’s a worldwide phenomenon that causes a catastrophic event. The only thing I would have preferred was more development on the impact of said event. Bruce owns factors. Clark is a reporter. Diana travels the world. There could have been ways to incorporate how the league would have known what was happening without feeling forced. But that’s for a different take.
Thoughts On The 1st Act
This film did a great job of setting up all the main components for the story. I would have preferred a better introduction of Mera, but because her presence is so dominating later, it’s made up. If I had to guess, I would say this might have been trimmed down for time. We could have had more time with Thomas and Atlanna. We should have had more time with more backstory of Manta and Arthur if he’s been looking for him. But again, this film knew that it needed to get all of this out-of-the-way to start the real story.
One thing it was missing, is who Mera was and why was she the only one looking for Arthur. We aren’t told her name at the first introduction. We aren’t told of her affiliation with anyone and we certainly don’t know that she’s a Princess of Xebel. All of that is known ONLY if you know these characters. How James got a pass on that and certain directors don’t is beyond me.