How ‘Aquaman’ Searches for a New Direction for DC

The film may have learned something from Marvel and ‘Wonder Woman.’

Where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has essentially built out and stayed on a consistent course over the past decade, the DC film universe has been nothing but course corrections. When the MCU began in 2008, DC was spending the summer riding high with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But now, DC and Warner Bros. are trying to ape the success Marvel has had, in part due to the misbegotten failure of films like Batman v. Superman and last year’s Justice League. (That film, of course, was full of course corrections after Joss Whedon got involved.) Now DC is trying to lean hard into the kind of bright, colorful action and humor that Marvel has embraced.

As introduced in previous DC films, the Aquaman of James Wan’s film is the gruff but supposedly lovable Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the product of an ill-fated romance between a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the Queen of Atlantis herself, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). When Aquaman begins, Arthur is content to help save the Russian navy from pirates overtaking their submarines without getting himself involved in mankind’s greater problems. But he’s soon visited by Mera (Amber Heard), the daughter of one of the seven kings of the sea (Dolph Lundgren). Mera’s on land to implore Arthur to return to Atlantis to prevent an all-out war between the land and the sea, the latter represented by Arthur’s half brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). All this occurs as Arthur has to both face off against Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a villain inspired by revenge against our hero, and decide whether or not he wants to accept that he’s the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis.

For a long time, Aquaman wasn’t just a DC Comics character — he was something of a punch line in pop culture. A decade ago, the character was simply used as a gag on the HBO comedy Entourage, as a nonsensical choice for a franchise to be built around a young movie star. Watching the actual, non-James-Cameron-directed Aquaman, though, it’s not hard to feel like you’re in the presence of an almost irretrievably silly film, its own goofiness heightened by various sections that seem to aim for profundity. In one scene, Arthur and Orm are presented to a crowd spoiling for a fight to the death, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags about each fighter’s pros and cons. (Since Orm has the home-field advantage, he’s only got pros listed, and the outsider Arthur just has cons.) But then there are scenes where Orm aims to enlist other royalty of the sea in his hopeful war against the humans, the internecine politics recalling the same dry, dull dialogue from the Star Wars prequels.

Frankly, much of the ascent-to-the-throne stuff with Arthur and Orm feels like an inversion of Black Panther. In the Ryan Coogler-directed Marvel film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is being anointed to the throne after the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War. But he’s soon challenged by a boisterous surprise, Erik Stevens/N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), who’s the cousin that T’Challa didn’t know he had. In each film, the hero and villain engage in a fight to the death, surrounded by a crowd prepared to kneel before the eventual victor as their leader. In Black Panther, the lines between hero and villain are both clear — N’Jadaka wants to use Wakanda to dominate the rest of the world — but they’re also muddied because of Jordan’s performance and the mature take on his character’s past. In Aquaman, Orm wants to subjugate land dwellers to amass power (and keep them from continuing to pollute the seas). Knowing that films such as Aquaman go through years of development, it would be unfair to suggest that the DC film deliberately borrowed from one of the many elements that made Black Panther so distinctive and remarkable. But coming mere months after that more complex exploration of what it means to be a leader makes Aquaman’s depiction of a fractured royal family feel dull.

Aquaman is, at this point, probably a safer bet for Warner Bros. and DC Comics than something like a new Batman or Man of Steel movie, if only because it’s hard to see either Ben Affleck or Henry Cavill donning the mantle of either Batman or Superman again anytime soon. Moreover, whatever flaws Aquaman has, it’s not wallowing in a grim aesthetic like its predecessors. While it makes perfect sense for the DC movies to begin aping the films of the MCU, what Aquaman does feels like a shaky attempt to combine a few different, familiar stories or flipping them around without a lot of success.

Jason Momoa may yet make a decent hero in one of these films, but unlike his Justice League co-star Gal Gadot, his solo effort isn’t a resounding success the way Wonder Woman was last year. Instead, it just feels like the DC film universe is trying too hard.

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