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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Is Aquaman Worth Seeing? My Review of the DC Superhero Film that Takes Viewers Underwater

On Christmas Day, my teenage son and I decided to give Aquaman, the latest DC Comics superhero film, a try. He and I generally prefer Marvel superhero films (though we both love  the Dark Knight trilogy starring Christian Bale). Still, we felt Aquaman looked promising, so with a new AMC gift card in hand, we headed for our local theater to catch the DC superhero film in 3-D.

And today, I wanted to give my readers my take on the film. Though this blog generally focuses on science fiction and fantasy books (mainly because I want to encourage reading), I will occasionally review a film. Hence, this spoiler-free review of Aquaman.

The film stars Jason Mamoa as the title character and Amber Heard (with red hair) as Princess Mera. It's directed by James Wan. According to Screen Rant, production costs on Aquaman came in at around $160 million.

Let me start by saying that I consider myself a Jason Mamoa fan. I thoroughly enjoyed Mamoa's turn as Ronon Dex in the spectacularly awesome TV series Stargate: Atlantis. (Oh, how I miss that show!) In that series, Mamoa proved himself to be one of those rare actors who can completely dominate the camera and keep viewers engaged. While I liked all the Stargate: Atlantis characters, you could tell that Mamoa was the actor whose career would live on well after Atlantis wrapped. And that has certainly been the case.

Mamoa starred in the disappointing Conan the Barbarian remake in 2011 and was featured in the hugely popular Game of Thrones HBO miniseries. (Full disclosure: Though I love fantasy and recognize Game of Thrones to be exceptionally well made television, I have steered clear of it due to its morally objectionable content). When the DC movies incorporated Mamoa into the Justice League lineup as Aquaman, I knew it was a good match.

Mamoa is not your grandfather's or even your father's Aquaman. When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1960s cartoon version of Aquaman that featured a blonde-haired hero riding his trusty sea horse. Mamoa is not that Aquaman. And many film critics and everyday commentators have hailed this change. "Gone is the Aryan-looking Atlantean in green-and-orange spandex, replaced with a bare-chested Hawaiian super-stud with long, shaggy surfer hair and all-over tribal tattoos," declares Peter Debruge for Variety.

"There is a frisson of delight in seeing a biracial hero dominate a superhero movie," echoes Wesley Morris for The New York Times. "He’s an inspired left-field choice for Aquaman, who in the DC comic books, and the cartoons they inspired, tended to be a slab of Eagle Scout-y blondness."

Clearly, when it comes to racial diversity and sheer screen presence, Jason Mamoa is a giant step forward for the Aquaman character and franchise. And when it comes to diversity and screen presence, mention must also be made of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who chews up the scenery as a ruthless high-tech pirate turned super-villain Black Manta.

As for the cast overall, I found it enjoyable to see Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman and Dolph Lundgren with significant supporting roles. As a fan of 1980s and 90s action movies, I especially smiled at Lundgren who plays King Nereus.

The movie features fantastic world-building, incredible action sequences, and marvelous special effects. The finale is especially intense, though it gets a little confusing at times. And, as mentioned previously, it also serves up a fairly strong cast -- though, in some cases, an underutilized cast. 

Unfortunately, the movie itself has an overall underwhelming feel. The packaging is great. The content seems (at times) weak. Writing for ForbesErik Kain sums it up pretty well: "Instead of character development we get spectacle. Glorious spectacle. The CGI is as outstanding as it is overwhelming. Half the movie takes place underwater and they do a decent job with that, but every other scene turns into a battle. Explosions abound. Giant sea creatures are eclipsed by even more gargantuan underwater beasts." Yes, indeed. The spectacle (the packaging) is incredible. But the movie left me with a feeling that can perhaps best be described by the famous question asked by that cantankerous lady from the old Wendy's commercial: "Where's the beef?"

Morris puts it a little harshly, when he writes: "There’s no joy or wonder to behold, just comic-book movie blah-blah." While I wouldn't go that far, when my son and I exited the theater, we couldn't rate the film as being any better than "mediocre."

Much of the script was trite and predictable. Some of the dialogue was downright cringe-worthy. And the movie was just too long. Had the movie been written, directed, and edited as a 90-minute action film, it would've probably been three times better. As it was, it plodded along for 2 1/2 hours! By the time we finally made it to the end, we were more than ready to depart.

Conscientious parents and those looking for clean cinema will be disappointed at some of the language and should be advised that there is violence throughout. Writing for Common Sense Media, Michael Ordona sums up the film's moral content as follows: "[I]t's largely bloodless, but characters are beaten, impaled, and eaten by monsters, and weapons (including blasters and tridents) are used. Language is infrequent but includes 'ass,' 's--t,' and 'd--k'; adult characters also kiss and drink (once to excess)."

Many moviegoers these days are quite fine with limited character development, predictable plots, and trite dialogue. They just want action and cool effects. If you're in that group, you'll like Aquaman. Indeed, if you like superhero films in general, you'll probably find Aquaman at least passably enjoyable. If you're a Jason Mamoa fan, it's definitely something you should check out. But...

If you're hoping for a superhero movie as excellent as 2008's Iron Man (starring Robert Downey, Jr.), the Captain America film series (starring Chris Evans), or the Dark Knight trilogy (starring Christian Bale), you will likely be disappointed.

As for me, I enjoy going to the movies with my family. And my son and I both enjoy action-packed superhero films. So, a night out with him was worth it. And, if you're a parent like me looking for a good reason to hit the movies with your kid, you could do worse than Aquaman. And honestly, I've learned the most important thing isn't the quality of the film you're watching. It's about the quality of the relationship with the one you're seeing the movie with. For this reason, I was glad to go to the movies with my son. And I'm grateful to the church family that gave us the AMC gift card (as a Christmas present) to make the outing possible.

Aquaman is rated PG-13, and (as of this writing) is currently showing in theaters nationwide.

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