No Devils in the Deep Blue Sea: Gary Westfahl Reviews Aquaman

Yes, I will admit, I would have preferred to see fewer brutal fistfights accompanied by the amplified sound of crunching lettuce and more leisurely attention to the imaginative underwater environments that mostly serve as backdrops for the film’s incessant free-for-falls; and yes, the film would have benefited from some judicious editing to reduce its two-and-a-half hour length to two hours. But overall, Aquaman qualifies as a successful superhero film, persuasively demonstrating that the main problem afflicting the development of the DC Extended Universe is the baleful impact of recurring director Zack Snyder; once he is removed from the picture, other directors like Patty Jenkins and this film’s James Wan are proving more than capable of delivering satisfactory films featuring these iconic superheroes.

Still, for people familiar with comic books, Snyder’s most recent effort – the much maligned Justice League (2017 – review here) – did play a helpful role by introducing the rather different approach to Aquaman that the franchise is employing. (For the record, this film makes only one fleeting reference to the events in Justice League when Mera [Amber Heard] tells Aquaman [Jason Momoa] that “You defeated Steppenwolf and saved Atlantis.”) When I first got to know him as a backup feature in Adventure Comics, Aquaman was a polite man with short blonde hair who rarely resorted to fisticuffs, preferring to telepathically summon sea creatures to do the heavy lifting in his battles against crime. While effective in his own underwater realm, though, Aquaman’s powers regularly seemed useless, even silly, when he joined other superheroes in their adventures on land, in the sky, and in space, so he evolved into an object of ridicule – the superhero with the awe-inspiring ability to “talk to fish.”

Yet the character has impressively endured for seventy-five years, and as he is repeatedly relaunched, writers and artists have endeavored to make him tougher, more troubled, and more rough-hewn. The Jason Momoa Aquaman takes these trends even further, as this mild-mannered swimmer has been transformed into a muscular, hot-tempered, hard-drinking brawler (who complains while eviscerating a bunch of pirates that “I’m missing happy hour for this”). Clearly, the reason he spends so much time in this film pounding away at various powerful opponents is to convey one message: I am not a joke! I’m really bad-ass! Now that this point has been made, however, one hopes that if Aquaman appears in additional films, he is given more opportunities to explore other aspects of his personality.

For as his mythology has evolved, Aquaman is interestingly a man of two worlds, the son of a human lighthouse keeper and a water-breathing woman from the submerged continent of Atlantis. His Marvel counterpart Sub-Mariner had a similar background, but he grew up underwater and retained a certain hostility to surface dwellers, so he has functioned as both a hero and a villain; in contrast, Aquaman was raised on land and clearly feels most comfortable there, as he visits a seaside bar to relax and drink beer with his father Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), and he takes the side of the air-breathers when his half brother Orm, or Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), plans to war against the surface world.

Despite his ties to the land, however, Aquaman is also the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis; he falls in love with, and will eventually marry, the water-breathing Atlantean Mera; and at the end of the film he seems prepared to serve as king of Atlantis and identifies himself as the “protector of the sea” (even though he has devoted most of his time in the film to protecting the land). Clearly, Aquaman has a problem in deciding where he should settle down; to air breathers, he is the “fish-boy,” while Mera tells Aquaman that the land, not the sea, is his real “element.” This conflict has also played out in his astoundingly convoluted and constantly revised comic book adventures, as Aquaman recommits to the Justice League, quits the Justice League, takes control of Atlantis, relinquishes the throne of Atlantis, splits up with Mera, reconciles with Mera, and so on and so on. But these well-established tensions also provided bases for intriguing stories that do not involve Aquaman beating the crap out of one scoundrel after another, which as noted represents this film’s unfortunate preoccupation.

What is more genuinely entertaining about Aquaman is the colorfully variegated underworld world that the film’s veritable army of artists and technicians have crafted. (I always sit through the closing credits, in part because they sometimes include a brief additional scene setting up a sequel – as this one does – and I thought that the always interminable list of such names was even more interminable in the case of this film.) As portrayed in the comic books that I remember, DC’s Atlantis had two major cities whose inhabitants reacted differently to the sinking of their continent: the people of one city employed their advanced science to become water-breathers while otherwise remaining human, like Aquaman’s mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman); those in the other city additionally turned themselves in mermen and mermaids, like Superman’s old flame Lori Lemaris. In this film, however, Atlantis was clearly a vast continent with many cities, and its numerous citizens, we are told, evolved – or devolved – into various forms. (Of course, this couldn’t actually happen in a few millennia, but the film lacked a Science Advisor to point that out.) So, there are still water-breathing humans and merpeople, but there are also more bestial races descended from the Atlanteans that Orm is endeavoring to forge into an alliance against the surface world. The film also fails to explain why only “highborn” Atlanteans, like Aquaman and Mera, can breathe both water and air, while Atlantean commoners can only breathe water (which makes it easy to defeat them when they attack on land – all one has to do is to smash their water-filled helmets). And Mera was originally introduced in comic books as a queen from another dimension, which is why she is able to control water, but the film presents her as just another noble Atlantean, making her unique powers puzzling to say the least. Finally, conveying the antiquity of their civilization, those Atlanteans who are human enough to wear clothes dress in the styles of ancient Greeks and Romans, and their structures creatively blend classic architecture with futuristic touches, like a carved stone platform that, when a metallic device is inserted, generates a hologram. But viewers don’t have much time to observe all of this, as the film rushes on to set up its next battle scene.

Just as the film might profitably have better introduced Aquaman (and the surface dwellers in the audience) to the variegated realm of Atlantis, it also devotes insufficient attention to the parallel task of introducing Mera to the wonders of the surface world. There is one charming scene that briefly addresses this matter: searching for the McGuffin that will enable Aquaman to claim the throne of Atlantis (the details don’t matter), Aquaman and Mera visit a coastal village in Sicily, and as they stroll through its bustling marketplace, Mera stares in amazement at everything around her; when Aquaman buys her a bouquet of roses, she smiles and proceeds to eat one, and Aquaman bemusedly does the same. Then Aquaman and Mera walk to a circle of statues, where Aquaman calmly uses his knowledge of history to figure out how to determine the McGuffin’s location. But the mood is abruptly shattered when a despicable villain literally bursts out of nowhere to knock Aquaman to the ground, and he and his cohorts proceed to violently pursue Aquaman and Mera, destroying virtually every home and every business in the village as they do so. The whole sequence epitomizes the film’s misguided priorities; for heaven’s sake, audiences have seen powerful adversaries smashing holes through walls in hundreds, if not thousands of films, but how many times have they observed a woman from a distant land eating a rose? Indeed, one of the film’s most effective scenes comes when a group of tough-looking men approach Aquaman in a bar and ask if he is the “fish- boy”; disliking the phrase, Aquaman answers that he is the “fish-man,” and viewers sadly expect that these men are looking for a fight, so that the whole bar will soon be trashed as Aquaman batters them into submission. But refreshingly, they only want to pose for a picture with Aquaman, providing a cute moment instead of a routine brawl. In making Wonder Woman (2017 – review here), Patty Jenkins dutifully included plenty of action, but there were also many quiet scenes with her superhero that ultimately made that film more memorable; James Wan, I think, would have benefited from studying her work more carefully.

Jenkins’s film also began with an extended sequence showing Wonder Woman’s upbringing, and this film would have been better if it had done the same. There is a later flashback with the young Aquaman being trained by his mentor Vulko (Willem Defoe) and one early (and marvelous) scene when Arthur observes sea creatures in an aquarium and first discovers his unique rapport with creatures of the deep; but there might have been other scenes showing young Arthur Curry becoming fully acquainted with his aquatic abilities and dealing with the bullying that, as suggested in the aquarium, he regularly experienced because he was obviously different than other boys. Aquaman alludes to the issue when he comments that “I learned from a young age not to show weakness,” but a scene showing how he learned that lesson would have had a greater impact.

In one key respect, nevertheless, Wan’s film is aligned with Wonder Woman, since he also makes his superhero a crusader for peace, not merely an opponent of some moustache-twirling reprobate. Early in the film, Atlanna comments that because of his mixed background, her son “could unite our worlds one day.” When Orm first attacks the surface world, Aquaman tells Vulko, “I’ll help you stop this war, then I’m done.” Later, his mother announces that Aquaman can become something “greater than a king” – “a hero. A king fights only for his nation; you fight for everyone.” Given the opportunity to kill his half-brother Orm, who has repeatedly tried to kill him, Aquaman refuses to do so, even though Orm demands his own death, saying “Mercy is not our way.” Aquaman responds, “I’m not one of you” and “No, that is enough killing.” Instead, he merely has his opponent imprisoned and says, “When you’re ready, let’s talk.” And his mother explains that Orm was simply given bad advice by his father, who taught him that “there were two worlds, the land and the sea,” when in fact “There is only one world.” As it happens, One World (1943) is the title of a 1943 book by Wendell Willkie that significantly influenced movements for international cooperation after World War II, and some cautious filmmakers might feel it is controversial to argue that we should try to make peace with our enemies instead of defeating them. What it is saying is not profound or deep, then, but Aquaman does qualify as one of the rare contemporary films, like Wonder Woman, that has the courage to say something, and it should be commended for doing so.

The film also has an understated environmental message, for as Orm points out, the Atlanteans have excellent reasons to despise the people of the land: “For centuries they have polluted our water and poisoned our creatures” – which is perfectly true. The enormous waves that Orm creates to bring garbage and shipwrecks to Earth’s shores do cause some deaths and damage, but one character notes that he was only returning to the surface some of the debris that had been thoughtlessly dumped into the sea. Aquaman makes no effort to defend the land dwellers’ actions, responding only that they have also done some good things, and his final pledge to protect the sea presumably includes a commitment to minimizing future pollution of the oceans.

It was heartening for the film to characterize its chief villain as merely misguided, not hopelessly depraved, and to suggest that he might someday reconcile with Aquaman and the surface world; but no outcome of this kind seems possible with the film’s other villain, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II). This man is definitely not a nice guy: he is first observed as an underwater pirate, taking over a submarine, and he heartlessly kills its captain. But he also has a perfectly legitimate grievance against Aquaman; after the superhero defeats the pirates and rescues the crew, he could have taken action to save the life of Black Manta’s father, but he declined to do so, stating in effect that such a brutal criminal did not deserve mercy. Later, Aquaman acknowledges that he made a mistake – “I let him die. I made an enemy.” Aquaman remains, in other words, a flawed superhero, as he further notes that “I do not work or play well with others.” It is fitting that, once he has finally earned the right to the throne, he asks, “What do I do now?,” since he does not seem temperamentally prepared for the business of governing a kingdom; and Mera’s answer – “Be their king” – does not reassure us that he will ever do a good job. In fact, in his comic book adventures, Aquaman never remains the king of Atlantis for very long, invariably preferring to abandon the throne and return to the surface world.

There are a few clever touches in the film that might be mentioned. At the very beginning, audiences observe the familiar Warner Brothers logo as a carving on the bottom of the sea, and a book in the home of the Maine lighthouse keeper who rescues and romances Atlanna happens to be H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, one of several collections that include that 1929 story, which features a character living in New England who, like Aquaman, has one human parent and one inhuman parent (though he is hardly heroic). One striking scene of a gigantic octopus playing drums seems to simultaneously refer to Aquaman’s former sidekick, the intelligent octopus Topo, and the octopus in The Little Mermaid (1989), which are both observed playing musical instruments. At one point, Aquaman and Mera evade pursuers when Aquaman leads both of them inside an enormous fish, an idea he later admits he got from another animated film with underwater sequences, Pinocchio (1940). But the film’s use of popular music could hardly be more trite: when Aquaman and Mera arrive at the Sahara Desert, we hear Toto’s “Africa” (1982), and as Mera first encounters the surface world in Sicily, we hear Roy Orbison’s “She’s a Mystery to Me” (1989).

As they were the superheroes that I loved as a child, I’ll always feel a special affection for the classic DC characters, and I would argue that no character in the DC universe deserves a decent movie more than Aquaman, which is why it was so thrilling to see that this has finally happened. For seventy-five years, this hero has labored in the trenches of the comic book world, stubbornly carrying on against all odds, and he has been repeatedly mistreated by comic book creators who felt empowered to throw away his entire history and start all over again as they endeavored to improve upon the previous reboot. I hope that this movie is successful enough to spawn a sequel and thus discourage writers and artists from further tampering with this poor, put-upon character, since James Wan has finally forged an Aquaman that seems built to last.

Directed by James Wan

Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, based on a story by Geoff Johns, James Wan, and Will Beall, based on characters created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris

Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Defoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish, Tainui Kirkwood, Tamor Kirkwood, Leigh Whannell, Denzel Quirke, Kaan Guldur, Otis Dhanji, Kekoa Kekumano, and the voices of Julie Andrews and John Rhys-Davies

Gary Westfahl has published 28 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website (here). He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015), An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), the co-edited Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences (2018), and Arthur C. Clarke, part of the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.

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