This Is a Movie Review: ‘Aquaman’ is Overstuffed, But It’s Got Some Fun, Wet Weirdness

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison

Director: James Wan

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Combat Taking Place Undersea and the Sea Being Turned Into Weapons

Release Date: December 21, 2018

Everybody loves Aquaman. (Unless you have an opposing claim to the throne of Atlantis, that is.) This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it used to be that in all corners of the pop culturesphere, he was the biggest punch line among all well-known superheroes. But now Arthur Curry is everyone’s buddy. Although, in terms of how much he’s keeping his identity a secret and the level of hero worship, this movie does not make it entirely clear what the world thinks of him. It seems like the audience is expected to come in with some familiarity of last year’s Justice League. But that team-up picture was not completely comprehensive about how the terrestrial world felt about him. Suffice it to say, Jason Momoa is pretty much able to play him like the jolly giant that he is, and one scene that tells us all we need to know features a gang of bikers who look like they are about to beat him up but instead excitedly request a selfie.

The meat of the story, in a movie that has about a half-dozen active plot threads, is the half-Atlantean/half-human Curry attempting to ascend to the throne of Atlantis. As the eldest son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), it should be his birthright. He does not really want to be king, though, but the throne’s current occupant, his younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), is planning a war against land dwellers. But that storyline gets interrupted while Arthur and his love interest/personal conscience Mera (Amber Heard) ascend back to the surface and go on a scavenger hunt to track down a MacGuffin. So for about a half hour, the two globehop and track down clues, turning Aquaman into Indiana Jones for a stretch. Then all the other Atlanteans re-appear, and just about every plotline finds time to be resolved, because this sucker is nearly two and a half hours long.

But there is still some time to leave a few threads dangling, as the sequel must always be set up, which means that a few key issues are left unelaborated amidst all the bloat. The ostensible reason that Orm wants to start a war is because of all the pollution that ends up in the oceans. But that explanation feels so throwaway and never really plays into the conflict between Orm and Arthur. And there is no sense of whether terrestrial humans are or are not going to take responsibility for all their wastefulness. Ultimately, this movie jumps all over the place and does not know where to focus, but there are thrills to be had in odd details, like an octopus playing the drums, an Atlantean fighter sticking his head into a toilet for wet relief, and Randall Park’s all-too-brief appearance as a scientist sounding a call of alarm. And it bears repeating: everyone loves Aquaman (even though he is occasionally called an imbecile).

Aquaman is Recommended If You Like: Jason Momoa’s bonhomie, Water-based weaponry, Superhero movies that stretch past two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Water Spears

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Justice League’ is Okay, I Guess

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen

Director: Zack Snyder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Localized Explosions, Heat Vision Mishaps, and Grotesque Insectoids

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Would you rather have a true auteurist vision that is decidedly ugly and off-putting, or a plainly adequate film with little distinct personality? If you want something to endlessly discuss and theorize about, go with the former. But if you want something to actually watch, go with the latter.

Justice League is perhaps the least Zack Snyder-y film of Zack Snyder’s career. Absent completely is the washed-out color palette. Fabian Wagner’s cinematography is mostly workmanlike, but he does what he can in a limited sandbox, and the result is actually pleasant to look at. Colors are not only present, they’re vibrant! There is an early scene of Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince walking along some lush greenery, and it makes me wish the whole film had just been Justice League Hanging Out in the Park. The action might still fit within Snyder’s kinetic pinball wheelhouse, but it is not as garishly stylized as usual. And because this is a post-Wonder Woman world, the hard-to-be-a-god, brooding cynicism has given way to genuine hopefulness. Really, the only Snyder signature that unequivocally remains is the best one, i.e., the rediscovered rock song scoring the opening credits (this time, it’s Norwegian singer Sigrid’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”).

The main duty of Justice League is finding a way forward after the colossal slog that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice by way assembling its titular superteam and resurrecting its most iconic member. The returning headliners, namely Affleck’s Batman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman, unquestionably know how to handle this heft. Ezra Miller’s Flash and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman convey their characters economically enough. Ray Fisher could use some more prime time as Cyborg, but it’s an okay start. Overall, it’s refreshing that everyone is eager to team up because they simply recognize how much the entire world is at stake. Isn’t that how superheroes were always meant to be?

As for Superman’s rise from the grave, it isn’t surprising, nor is it meant to be. The (theoretical) fun of it is seeing how it plays out. And on that point, it is fairly entertaining. When Supes comes to, his mind is a bit scrambled, causing him to indiscriminately attack whomever is in the path of his heat vision. Henry Cavill plays it like his body vomiting up the last remnants of Snyder’s inexplicably distasteful take on the Man of Steel. This concession to a lighter version is in fact indicative of the whole Justice League ethos. Finally, the DC Extended Universe is allowed to crack jokes! And I’m not talking glib, Marvel-style one-liners, but actual character moments, like malapropisms and other exposures of vulnerability. Ma Kent (Diane Lane), for one, informs Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that Clark said Lois was “the thirstiest young woman he ever met” (she means hungriest). It’s okay to laugh!

As for the actual story engine, the DCEU is still testing our patience. If this were a pilot episode of a Justice League TV show, it would be fine enough. A little long, but a decent setup. And if you’re in the business of silver linings, that is the best takeaway to come away with here. Future sequels are inevitable, and I can see a roadmap where they might actually be good. The best villains are being saved for later, but this time around the big bad is incredibly perfunctory. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds under a lot of CG) is some sort of gargoyle whose motivation does not go anywhere beyond “try to take over the world.” His army of insect-men is just a nuisance in every capacity. It’s fair to save the best for later, but it helps to actually get to the best at some point.

Justice League is Recommended If You Like: Incremental Improvement

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Doomsday Clocks