A he-man who swims, slithering through the ocean deep, then comes ashore to demonstrate his amphibious strength and superhero powers, the new live-action Aquaman is perfectly embodied by Jason Momoa. Zack Snyder first introduced Momoa during a teasing digression of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in a sequence that promised other D.C. Comics characters would share a heroic-erotic mode. They would answer the millennium’s politically depressed view of bravery, principle, and history with an atavistic ideal. (Sndyer must have heard Walter Hill’s commendation from Bullet to the Head that Momoa was “a man among men.”)
But now that the Aquaman movie is finally here — and is a record-breaking box-office hit — Snyder’s aesthetic drive has been castrated. The Aquaman movie proceeds like a Marvel movie — an expanded generational narrative, starting with Aquaman’s parents (Temereu Morrison as his Pacific Islander father and Nicole Kidman as Atlanna, his ocean-empress mother) and the birth of their demigod offspring named Arthur. (“Product of a love that never should have been.”) This intro is Marvel-mundane, despite featuring a sped-up fantasy fight scene. The digital effects — overkill excitation — immediately ruin Snyder’s almost tactile corporeal vision for emphasis on action and frantic stimulation that video-game and VR enthusiasts have come to prefer over cinema. Marvelized reviewers don’t even appreciate the difference.
Plotwise, the adult Aquaman is called to defend his oceanic heritage, battling sea deities and human pirates in a global power struggle that is less a war between good and evil and more like the fake-spiritual, two-half-brothers antics of the puerile Thor films. I’d rather go fishing.
Momoa is the key to what’s been lost: He has a broad, Biblical-movie face like Howard Keel’s Saint Peter in Frank Borzage’s The Big Fisherman. When underwater, his long caveman’s mane floats — hackles up. His green-gold eyes tell more about possessing a mortal and immortal duo nature than does his adolescent confession. (“At a young age I learned not to show weakness. I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.”) This backstory is aimed at suckering the same hip-hop market as Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. (A subplot about a fatherless black pirate pursuing a vendetta against Aquaman cravenly purloins Black Panther.)
Snyder’s biblical accent makes more sense than tacked-on Arthurian legend. Aquaman, like Snyder’s Superman and Batman, is meant to evoke those pop-art illustrations of Boris Vallejo that fleshed out the thin-line musculature of comic-book graphics for a sensual mythic quality. (Henry Cavill’s Superman suit seemed tumescent; Momoa’s gold, scaly suit doesn’t fit.) The idea was to make a visual connection to classical storytelling and intensify its philosophical echoes as in 300 and perfected in 300: Rise of an Empire.
But Aquaman, as directed by James Wan and reconceived by Warners executives chasing after Marvel’s jackpot, is all about copycat desperation — and shrillness. Wan and Warners resort to imitating James Cameron’s Avatar. Aquaman teams with mermette Mera (Amber Heard) and tours through several underwater realms — Atlantis, Kingdom of the Brine — resembling Avatar’s Pandora, yet still not wondrous enough to match the various interstellar pageants of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Wan’s Aquaman is anti-cinematic; its video-game compositions are illogical. The animation’s swirling, non-stop movement is too fast, too zoomy. There’s no build-up to the Kingdom of the Brine extravaganza, which has supersized lobsters and crabs and other Lord of the Rings–style nonsense, multiplied to a million digitized bits. Not since the Star Wars reboots has “visual beauty” been so disorganized, and therefore unearned.
Aquaman trades Snyder’s metaphysics that dealt with the nature of being for sheer commercial hackery. It also converts the comic-book idiom into trite politics when Aquaman is encouraged “What could be greater than a king? A Hero. A king fights for his nation. You fight for everybody!” It’s a poster for hope straight from 2008. This post-Snyder Aquaman seems the first fully Marvelized of the D.C. Comics films, and its lack of sensual, historic gravity signals the betrayal of Snyder’s vision by the industry as the artistic tragedy of the era.