A major plot point in Aquaman is the tidal wave of garbage with which the undersea folk attack us surface dwellers. These two groups are spoiling for a fight, but I always thought Warner Bros. and I got along pretty well. What did I do to deserve the tidal wave of garbage that is Aquaman itself? I refuse to believe DC Comics can ever come up with a worse movie than this. Aquaman is such an eyeball-scald and an eardrum-shiv it makes me long for the relative excellence of Justice League.
Picture the worst Pirates of the Caribbean mashed up with the demented psychedelia of Green Lantern and you’ll have some idea of the feel of Aquaman, which even throws in some Sahara scenes straight out of a regrettable Mummy picture. Whether it’s Nicole Kidman’s kickboxing, Willem Dafoe’s man-bun, or the cheesy Bill-and-Ted-style guitar riff that introduces Aquaman on the soundtrack, every choice is crazy bad.
Aquaman’s back story is like a discarded draft of Splash: Atlanna, the Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman, with 30 years digitally erased from her face) washes ashore in Maine, where a kindly lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) nurses her back to health. Their son, Arthur (Jason Momoa), combines both of his parents’ qualities and is described as a bridge between the land and the sea, which is not actually how bridges work, unless they’ve got major design flaws.
Mama goes back to the oceans and Arthur/Aquaman takes up a hobby rescuing submarines from pirates. Their leader, called Manta (played by the actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, which is a better name than any that the guys who scripted this film came up with), carries a heavy grudge against Arthur, since the man-fish killed his dad. This seems whiny; Manta’s dad was, after all, trying to kill Arthur while stealing a submarine. Arthur has so much super-strength (Being amphibious makes you as powerful as Superman? Why?) that he’s boring; a knife bounces off him, and even when a bullet sends him flying, his response is “Ouch.” Picture a keg-party version of 1980s Schwarzenegger. One who thinks “You’re a d***!” is a sick burn.
Down beneath the waves, the uppity King Orm (Patrick Wilson), counseled by a double-crossing lieutenant (Willem Dafoe) who is actually Arthur’s mentor, seeks to unite the various monarchies to make war against man. A princess of the sea named Mera (Amber Heard) urges Arthur to dive in and stop this by seizing the crown from Orm. He turns out to be another of Queen Atlanna’s children, which means Arthur calls him “Little Brother.” Odd: Wilson is six years older than Momoa. But what’s really nuts is Orm taunting Arthur and accepting a Black Panther–style “combat of the kings.” Wilson has made a nice career for himself playing dicey politicians and dodgy suburban dads. But even in ice-blonde hair, his type is less “supervillain” than “tax accountant.” He’s not the man to cast as someone who could plausibly cause much distress to Jason Momoa, who looks like Kilimanjaro in jeans, unless it’s to tell him he doesn’t qualify for a mortgage-interest deduction.
All of the talk underwater is rendered with a dumb glug-glug sound effect that doesn’t improve either the portentous exposition or the junior-high jokes, like this one to Aquaman when he goes below the waves: “You’re out of your element — literally.” A glimpse of a trident brings on this: “What’s with the big fork?” If Arthur had brought his trident (quindent?) into battle with Brick Tamland, this movie couldn’t have been sillier, but at least Aquaman Meets Anchorman might be funny when it’s trying to be.
The whole production is like a gargantuan load of digital garbage being tossed into the CGI Cuisinart. Sea monsters come and go with so little explanation that you can hardly guess whether a giant croco-fish is to be dodged or hailed like a taxi (as Orm does). Mera saves Arthur in what appears to be a sporty catfish-mobile. This is one of those movies where the VFX guys are giving the story guys wedgies in the locker room, and the story guys just cringe and try not to look like they’re being humiliated. And yet the effects are woeful. A gun gizmo that shoots “energized plasma” looks like a plastic Super Soaker. In the Brine Kingdom (Really? Brine? Scary brine?) the villains are crustaceans who are less intimidating than anything in The Little Mermaid. Manta, in full bad-guy regalia, sports a football-shaped head that reminded me of Stewie Griffin.
The major rule for all jokes and plot twists is for them to be as dumb and contrived as possible. Confronted with an ancient set of rusty gears beneath the Sahara, Mera instantly guesses a single drop of water will oil them up nicely, then uses her magical water-extraction powers to draw a bead of sweat from Arthur’s brow. Meanwhile, director James Wan films the fights with maximum attention to cliché — Matrix time, the circling camera, lots of “Aaaaaaaggh!” and “He killed my father!” You would think Heard, a vacuous nonentity, and Momoa, an oaken frat boy, would be well-matched, but the movie’s efforts to generate a spark between them are as useless as an underwater Zippo. By the time they finally do lock lips between the waves, all I wanted to know was: Do they do it on a waterbed?