Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better
Monday, December 31, 2018
Friday, December 28, 2018
“A war is coming to the surface. And I am bringing the wrath of the seven seas with me.” ~ Orm
“I plunder the seas, and you’re the Aquaman. We were bound to meet sooner or later.” ~ Manta
“A king fights only for his own nation. You fight for everyone.” ~ Atlanna
“You think you are unworthy to lead because you are of two worlds? But that is exactly why you are worthy.” ~ Mera
“You killed innocent people. Ask the sea for mercy.” ~ Arthur
While the Marvel cinematic universe has merrily gone along like clockwork putting out entertaining films for quite sometime now, the DC cinematic universe, starting with Man of Steel, has had hits and misses. A new chapter in the franchise has opened in theatres, featuring a character already seen twice before, most notably in Justice League, where the waterlogged bad ass Aquaman got some of the better lines. Jason Momoa returns as the ferocious hero born of two worlds and trying to find his place in them in this solo film for the character that finds its best strength in its cast.
The story opens in the past, with lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) saving the life of the Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) in a storm. The two fall in love, having a son, Arthur, but she’s forced to return to Atlantis. She leaves one of her advisors, Vulko (Willem Dafoe) the task of training her son in the use of his abilities, which include being able to communicate with marine life, and how to become a warrior. The boy grows up, rejected by Atlanteans as a half breed, spending time in both the sea and on land, but not belonging to either.
A year after the Justice League dispatched Steppenwolf, Arthur, otherwise known as Aquaman finds himself tangling with a band of contemporary pirates that include David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), who will return to haunt him in the Inevitable Sequel. Events lead to Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) conniving for an excuse to attack the surface world. Mera (Amber Heard), daughter of another subsea king and betrothed to Orm, reaches out to Arthur to claim his rightful place as king. Arthur and Mera find themselves on a quest for the trident of Atlan, the usual cinematic doohickey that’s always the object of a quest in these things, a journey that will take them to many places and wonders, encounters with enemies, and an inevitable fight between brothers that you saw coming at the beginning of the movie.
The idea of a solo movie for the character has been in development since at least 2004, with pitfalls along the way. With the general success of Man of Steel, which kicked off the integrated DC cinematic universe, the character got greenlighted for a new take, appearing first in a cameo in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and then moving into a featured role as part of the team in Justice League. The story draws more heavily in its influence from the comics of more recent years- the rougher and more of a bad ass Aquaman started really in the 90s, a far cry from the dope he often comes across as in older material. Some of that recent influence shows itself in the Trench, part of the movie’s story that comes from the current continuity.
Four writers are credited with the story and screenplay, including Geoff Johns, who’s done some of the more recent work on the character. In terms of the screenplay itself, the story is presented with different themes. The concept of the journey and quest and how people are changed by it is seen through both Arthur and Mera. The division between worlds is part of Arthur’s personal journey, but also a nod to his parents, both of whom were of different worlds. And the struggle between brothers for their birthright, the conflict arising between siblings, is another theme that shows itself throughout the film. There’s even some environmental awareness going on- the notion of how humanity has polluted the oceans is one of the motivating factors that goes into destroying it.
Director James Wan has a background mostly in horror, and in films I don’t particularly care for- he did Saw and one of those Fast And Furious abominations (would it be so hard for every member of that so-called crew of high speed racers to meet a horrible end in a massive car wreck?). So this is the first time I’ve seen him do anything. He has a hand in the story as well, and manages to direct the film competently enough, moving the action from place to place and allowing the CGI to do its thing without swamping the story. The special effects render the underwater world and its wonders well, particularly the monsters of the Trench and a strange leviathan called Karathen (who just happens to be voiced by the most unlikely person you’d expect in this kind of film).
It’s the cast that is the strongest element of the film. It’s odd to think of Julie Andrews in a superhero film (though the argument could be made that her magical nanny Mary Poppins is one). She voices Karathen with gravity and dignity, giving what looks like a monster a peculiar sort of take that works. Dolph Lundgren, who’s been around theatres lately reprising his Rocky role as Ivan Drago in Creed 2, plays a different kind of role as King Nereus, Mera’s father and monarch of another undersea realm, reluctantly allying himself with Orm’s machinations.
Yayha Abdul-Mateen gets a good amount of time playing the human pirate and mercenary David Kane, a man who like his father sees nothing wrong with plundering the seas and breaking the law. Ruthless but resourceful, Kane quickly develops reasons to hate Arthur, and acts on behalf of Orm in a loose kind of alliance. The character’s look in armour fits in with his comics counterpart, and in fact he takes on the nickname Black Manta. We’ll see more of him to come, no doubt, but the actor gives him a scenery chewing edge in how he plays him.
Willem Dafoe is often the most interesting part of any film he makes, a character actor who plays a wealth of different character types. Here he’s the Gandalf of the story, a wise and patient Atlantean advisor named Vulko, loyal to those he deems worthy of it, guiding his student with wisdom and fortitude. Temuera Morrison, also a character actor who’s done a lot of different things down through the years, surprisingly gets a lot to do as Thomas Curry. The lighthouse keeper accustomed to solitude finds himself falling in love with a princess from beneath the seas, and Morrison gives the character a lot of depth and strength in his portrayal.
This is not the first time Nicole Kidman has been in a comic book adaptation. She was the love interest in Batman Forever, one of the two misfires by Joel Schumacher, who should never be allowed anywhere near a superhero movie ever again. I’m just saying. She proves to be sympathetic and strong as the Atlantean princess Atlanna, torn between the family she makes in the surface world and her duties beneath the sea. And her presence looms over the film, providing Orm with another reason to resent Arthur, while providing Arthur with an example to follow. I like the way the actress plays the character.
Patrick Wilson, who’s worked with Yan before in Insidious, plays the ambitious, bitter, conniving ruler of Atlantis, Orm Marius. He blames the surface world for pollution in the oceans (a fair point) and looks for a reason to unite the kingdoms of the deep into an attack on the surface world. He harbours deep resentments and anger towards his brother, seething with bitterness towards the half breed who just might have a claim on his throne. The character fits in fairly well with his comic book counterpart, a royal with all of the sense of entitlement and none of the sense of responsibility.
Amber Heard returns after a cameo in Justice League as Mera, the princess of one undersea kingdom, finding herself betrothed in an engagement to a man she doesn’t want, and who sees nobility and purpose in a different man. Perhaps it’s because that nobility and purpose resonates in her, which the actress plays to throughout the film. Her Mera is one of integrity, strength, and spirit, and Heard plays to that throughout, giving the role a compelling quality.
Jason Momoa was one of the highlights of Justice League as Aquaman, the brash tough guy with a seeming carefree streak who got a lot of the better lines in the film. He gives the character a charming energy with a lot of rough edges. And yet his Arthur has more depth under the surface- a man who acts to help others less because of getting credit and more because it’s the right thing. And he’s a man who feels his own isolation- born of two worlds but not fitting into either. He has to be prodded, in effect, into accepting his destiny, and that’s the character’s journey throughout the film. The actor still gets some of the better lines of the film, but also invests strength and tenaciousness in him.
Is Aquaman a flawless film? No, of course not. It doesn’t hit all the marks in the way that Wonder Woman did, and that latter film had a better director at the helm. But it’s not a misfire either. It deals with weighty themes, provides its heroes with a fitting journey, and offers up just enough lightness as it goes along to not get bogged down in gloom and doom like we had with Dawn Of Justice. Its protagonist is fun to watch, a ferocious bundle of energy that proves to be the sort of bad ass you don’t want to irritate.