Aquaman, DC’s most recent answer to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a competent film.
Which doesn’t make it a good one, mind you, though it’s not particularly bad, either. As superhero movies go, it merits, I suppose, a comparison to things like Nescafé instant coffee or dry shampoo: serviceable in a pinch, but not the sort of product you’d want associated too closely with your name.
The movie, which is the latest from director James Wan, best known for his work on the Saw and Insidious franchises, centers on one Arthur Curry, alias Aquaman. Played to dudebro-perfection by Jason Momoa, Arthur is the half-human, half-Atlantean heir to the throne of sea-sunk Atlantis, and at the film’s outset, he wants zilch to do with his family beneath the waves. But when war from below threatens the surface—pollution, like elections, has consequences, folks—Arthur’s indifference dries up. At the prompting of an Atlantean named Mera, a role jointly credited to Amber Heard and her stunningly red wig, Arthur sets off to secure the fabled trident of Atlan, a magical artifact that will legitimize his kingship and thereby enable him to stop the hostilities. The ensuing odyssey takes him and Mera from the shimmering depths of Atlantis, to the sunburnt dunes of the Sahara, to the hollow (but lush!) center of the planet.
Without a doubt, Aquaman is a better movie than most of the entries in DC’s Extended Universe, and its cool billion at the global box office suggests that crowds liked it even better than more deserving films, like Wonder Woman and (for my money) Man of Steel. But certainly it beats out the thicket of less worthy contenders. Whereas Justice League, for instance, overindulges a color palette of navies and burnt oranges, Aquaman trots out an Atlantis vibrant with color—a Hellenistic techno-marvel rich in multi-hued kelps, corals, and sealife. And whereas one of Batman v Superman’s (many) sins included a thanklessly overcomplicated plot, Aquaman’s fetch-quest approach to kingship is refreshingly direct.
And whereas Suicide Squad, heaven help us, was supposed to be the funny one, Aquaman knows enough to trust Momoa’s comic timing, as well as the absurdity of tossing his swaggering, beer-swilling character into the mannered halls of a throne room.
Of course, that these comparisons aren’t particularly hard to make speaks more to the sorry state of DC’s fledgling live-action franchise than to Aquaman’s successes. Either way, it’s damning that the comparisons I feel most compelled to make come from in-house. After all, implicit in that a metric is the pesky parenthetical, “for DC.” Aquaman is a good movie, for DC. It’s got good jokes, for DC, and a tidy plot, for DC.
Judged by any other standard, however, and Aquaman suddenly demands a very different vocabulary: words like competent, or familiar, or tired. Tired, I’d argue, most of all. While the film isn’t without interesting ideas—the notion of an environmental reckoning, for one—these ideas dart, glimmering and mostly unconsidered, through the nets that Aquaman reserves for its preferred but drabber game: the return of the king. Indeed, for all that Wan and Co. conjure up the alien dreamscape of the undersea, the story that answers this setting is as pedestrian as they come: a moody loner must become more—must become king, must become the one true king, which king alone can dethrone the usurping tyrant and restore peace to the land. Without exaggeration or even a hint of irony to redeem it, the movie’s characters fetishize Arthur’s coming crown often and explicitly. And the fact that the prop of Atlan’s trident ultimately justifies Arthur’s right to rule only underscores the flimsiness of the premise. In the end, a trident is just another name for a pitchfork, and pitchforks, as we all know, are better suited to disaffected crowds than to kingmaking.
Only it seems that Atlantis’s polity never got that memo. In true Arthurian fashion, the trident signals the arrival of the rightful king, the good king. Viva la revolución, I guess.
Which, perhaps, is what our present moment actually desires. In days as fractious and uncertain as these, it’s hard not to see the allure of Aquaman’s sword-in-the-stone solution to political strife—and equally hard not to find in our politics the same deep longing for a good king. An orange-tinted president to take the place of our orange-spandexed superheroes. An Ocasio-Cortez to rally the resistance. After all, how lovely the prospect of a social panacea.
And how exhausting, finally, to be the one on whom all that expectation rests.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.