It’s no secret that the DC films put out by Warner Brothers have been rather lacklustre. It says it all that a Justice League film, which combines superheroes such as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, is outperformed by a Marvel movie based solely around a B- player, Doctor Strange. And that’s not a slight at Marvel, the opposite, in fact. Their cinematic universe has been built on a foundation of lesser-known superheroes such as Iron Man and Thor and yet they made it work. Marvel had to use these characters instead of big names such as Spider-Man or the X-Men due to ownership rights being with multiple studios, so it’s incredible to think that 10 years on, they have the most successful shared universe in film history.
Naturally, other studios took note and sought to follow in their footsteps. Except, nobody had the patience or skill to craft together a world that would be as beloved. Such flops include the Universal Monster universe that would see Frankenstein, the Mummy, and other villains share a domain. This was halted after just one movie. Then we get to DC. Batman and Superman have been no strangers to the world of cinema, with plenty of iterations of the dynamic duo gracing our screens with some excellent entries such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that really stood out as masterpieces in their genre. Yet DC did not have what Marvel was building; a collection of heroes and villains that inhabited the same continuity and therefore, allowed for crossovers and “team-up” movies. In short, DC was playing catch up.
Instead of building towards something as truly breathtaking as Batman vs Superman, it was pushed out as their second film in their new franchise, after a Superman solo outing called Man of Steel. It’s here faith in DC and their ability to create a coherent narrative through collective films was lost. Batman vs Superman was a mess. There were elements that were fine, we had our introduction to Wonder Woman (who would get her own film in 2017 which was excellent) and in my opinion, Ben Affleck was a good choice for an older, world-weary Batman. These isolated positives were not enough to save the film and this theme was repeated in Justice League which was a box office bomb and a critical failure. This is still DC’s most glaring error. Justice League is a billion dollar movie, no excuses. Yet the film grossed a mere $657 million worldwide, which is absolutely shameful when the break-even point was $750 million. One positive from the film, in my eyes, was Aquaman.
Jason Mamoa played a charismatic, slightly arrogant but charming hero who completely defied the typical portrayal of Aquaman as a slightly too squeaky clean guy who can talk to fish. There was a certain intrigue around the character right from the outset and a solo movie provided another chance for DC to showcase what they can do with character development and world-building, à la Wonder Woman. Aquaman requires a lot of backstory and explanation as the common movie-going fan won’t know much of his history or indeed care, so in this way, DC had a good opportunity here to really go for it in terms of presentation of outlandish landscapes and ideas, so naturally, James Wan was hired to direct, and boy, did he do something special.
Wan created something utterly fantastic and unique with his portrayal of Atlantis. Vibrant colours mixed in with great atmospheric sounds that all blend together in a seamless mix that is really emphasised with how natural everything behaves, including the floaty hair on some of the characters; it looks correct and real. But Wan wasn’t afraid of diving into the weird and wonderful (there’s an octopus playing the drums at one point, for example) and this really sets the tone for the film; it’s fun, impressive and a spectacle. When the film transitions from the ocean floor to the real world, the beauty doesn’t end and we get some spectacular location shots. What also came from this is a layer of depth to the character of Aquaman; he had knowledge of history and we had an Indiana Jones style sequence where the message in the bottle (a great touch) had to be put to a King’s eye to locate the destination of the mythical trident that Aquaman needs to unite the sea.
The plot, as touched upon just now, essentially revolves around Aquaman taking his rightful place as King of Atlantis and commander of the seas. Plenty of superhero movies suffer from the same fate in origin films, in that we generally know the outcome and just want to get there; seeing the journey isn’t as compelling as it should be. However, with Aquaman, the property has the benefit of the superhero not being as well known, so there’s plenty to explore, which is heightened with just how different he is as a protagonist. The other benefit is that we were introduced to the character, albeit in the ill-fated Justice League movie, so there’s a degree of familiarity that allows us to simply enjoy him taking on some villains in the opening action beat (which later has more important repercussions). Therefore, when we’re taken on the journey of discovery, it doesn’t feel bogged down with the usual plodding plot points of new powers being unleashed, instead, the story can focus on who Arthur is, what he has to accomplish and how he does it, and the film transcends into an adventure and discovery tale, which was a great way to go.
One area that DC has always triumphed over Marvel is with their rogue’s gallery and having far more compelling and three-dimensional villains at their disposal. A criticism of Marvel films is that for the most part, antagonists in solo movies tend to have the exact same powers as the hero, which dampens the excitement during battles as there’s not much to witness that really sets the two apart. Orm or the Ocean Master is Aquaman’s half-brother and the main antagonist to our titular character. Now, they obviously have a similar powerset, however, it’s the time spent with Orm and the way he’s fully fleshed out that ensures the action sequences in one-on-one battles have a lot more weight behind them and mean something, as opposed to a cookie-cutter fight that ends in a predictable way. As for Orm, he was portrayed exceptionally well and managed to come across as threatening and powerful and received a good amount of respect from James Wan so that he wasn’t ever shown as goofy or simply just a placeholder for a bigger villain in another movie. Supporting character and love interest Mera has given DC another strong female character as well as Wonder Woman; Amber Heard portrayed the heroine with confidence and authority and she showcases some amazing water manipulation powers which leant to visually pleasing scenes of chaos and destruction.
One character that was introduced and in my eyes, overused, was the Black Manta. Circling back to the action sequence at the beginning of the film, Aquaman disposes of a group of pirates with relative ease and the last two survivors are the aforementioned Black Manta and his father. Aquaman allows the latter to die and this, of course, creates a new enemy in Black Manta. This is where his involvement should have ended and been saved for the sequel. This would have led to a ready-made villain and a storyline already in place that would have made sense, but I feel like this was scuppered slightly with the overexposure of the Black Manta throughout the plot and while the sequences were interesting, it was one villain too many. The action and main focus should have been the rivalry and eventual fight between Orm and Aquaman and for me, the Black Manta was a distraction to this.
Closing Thoughts and What’s Next?
Qualms regarding the Black Manta’s heavy involvement in the movie aside, this film was great. It had a compelling protagonist who has all the charisma of an Iron Man or Thor and he was absolutely able to carry the film to a satisfying conclusion and left me wanting to see more of not only him, but the whole of Atlantis. The story unfolded to a good tempo and took us through new landscapes that were stunning visually and really leant into the mythical roots of Atlantis and the mystery behind it. It would be great to see more of the underwater civilization in the future.
As for what’s next, there’s plenty of scope for DC to grow now in an organic and profitable way. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe presumably being reset in some capacity after Avengers: Endgame, the timing is ripe for DC to regain a foothold in the battle of the brands and engage in some slow and steady world building, much like Marvel did and will have to again. With Aquaman and Wonder Woman leading the charge, it enables new iterations of Batman and Superman to be introduced in a few years that could be electric, due to anticipation being at a new height. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of comic books and comic book movies.