No, yes, please, let us continue the tradition of telling stories about men who proudly don’t care about anything thrust into positions of power and authority purely by dint of birthright. I mean, as long as they have some smart, dedicated, noble-minded women around to support them and guide them and show them the way to wise manhood, that’s fine, right? Like, maybe some women who have been working toward whatever lofty goals the man will eventually “achieve” even though he’s just arrived on the scene and, as previously noted, couldn’t give a shit about the things they will now step aside and let him take all the credit for.
I certainly cannot see any way in which this recurring cultural narrative could have any negative impact on the world.
So here we have Aquaman, about a fish-man, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa: Justice League, The Bad Batch), who is half human and half Atlantean… as in the ancient underwater realm of Atlantis. He can breathe underwater, see even at depth in the dark ocean, swim superfast, and communicate with the animals of the seas. (For some reason he is also superstrong, because, I dunno, fish are unreasonably brawny?) And his Atlantean half is not just any-old peasant, either: His mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman: The Beguiled, Big Little Lies), was queen of Atlantis, though not a willing one, so she ran away, had a kid with a human man (Temuera Morrison: Moana, Green Lantern), and then got dragged back again. Now, another unwilling queen, Mera (Amber Heard: The Danish Girl, Magic Mike XXL), comes to the human world, the surface world, to bring Arthur back to Atlantis because his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson: The Commuter, The Founder), is up to no good and must be stopped, and apparently only Arthur can stop him, by taking up the throne of Atlantis. Mera can’t stop Orm, even though she seems to be secretly part of a resistance against him. She’s just a girl, after all.
Here is another recurring cultural narrative that by all means must endure, and that surely isn’t doing any damage whatsoever: science fiction and fantasy stories — of which Aquaman is arguably a bit of both — told by men — the screenwriters here are director James Wan and three other guys — that feature wildly inventive alternate worlds full of magic and wonder and all manner of fanciful places and creatures… and is just as fucking sexist as the real world. The limits to the imagination at play here are shocking but tediously predictable. God forbid we should enrage the fanboys who would howl should any hint of social-justice warfare edge into their fish-man-who-would-be-king story. Which, they may all rest assured, has not happened at all. Unless there is something objectionable in the non-blond-Aryan Momoa — who is partly of Native Hawaiian and Native American descent — in the lead role? (*Googles* Yup, some people think so.)
Indeed, even Aquaman’s nominally pro-environmental angle doesn’t dare to say anything even slightly radical. The badness of King Orm is all about how he wants to lead a war against the surface world because we’ve been dumping all our garbage in his ocean since forever, and just generally doing our best to destroy the planet, and it’s pretty difficult to fault him for this. But Arthur, straddling the two worlds as he does, can prevent this, apparently… and so Aquaman ends up reassuring us polluting humans that we don’t have to change our ways and clean up our act — literally or figuratively — because the half-human guy will make it all better and save us from suffering any consequences for our crimes.
There is no suspense in anything here, and so no real sense of triumph even when we’re meant to be cheering. It barely even registers when Arthur morphs every so slightly from a guy who might engage in some light maritime rescuing, even though it means missing happy hour, to a guy who is no longer scoffing at the “fairy tales” that indicate he is the rightful ruler of Atlantis. (He has to find a legendary trident and publicly wield it. Not pull a sword from a stone and publicly wield it. Totally different thing. King of the who?) Of course some of what he has to do involves dick-measuring hand-to-hand combat with his half brother, or with other manly obstacles, and for a guy who thinks with his muscles, that’s just fun. He’s not particularly challenged by anything that happens to him. He doesn’t struggle. As long as Arthur gets to keep being the same old pretty but colorless meathead (spoiler: he does), it makes no difference to him.
What else is there? A lot of imagery of the high-tech underwater realms, especially the city of Atlantis, that seems inspired by 80s mall-store black-light posters. (Hello, Spencer Gifts!) Jarring detours down an Indiana Jones/Dan Brown tangent, then another into a Lost Continent realm. (This movie is trying to be a lot of movies all at once, and it doesn’t work.) Undersea action sequences — big battles, chases — in which director Wan (The Conjuring 2, Insidious) offers us no sense of geography or space, no sense of who most of the characters involved are, and so they just mush together into a lot of noise and psychedelic chaos. There’s a human villain trying to kill Arthur, but when Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Boundaries, Baywatch) — who is hellbent to get revenge on “the Aquaman” for a thing Arthur did — has a chance to shoot Arthur, literally has Arthur in his sights, he fails to do so. (It’s much worse than the typical movie trope of the bad guy who fails to take the opportunity to kill the good guy: there’s no feint toward giving Manta a reason to hesitate. He’s not even monologuing at the time!) When Aquaman isn’t an incoherent mess, it’s little more than Jason Momoa standing around smirking or Amber Heard shifting instantly from disgust of Arthur to adoration of him. Which is barely any better.