There are objectively bad movies, and then there are movies as objectively bad as Aquaman: the kind of candy-coloured studio-dictated desecration the late comedian Bill Hicks would likely describe using words such as “Satan’s spawn” and “devil’s jizz.”
The DCEU blockbuster arrives the same year as Avengers: Infinity War, which marked a new low in studio-driven cash grabs. It also rather terrifyingly exemplified the willingness of contemporary audiences (including critics) to be steered like lemmings off a cliff, into a cinematic wasteland where the medium of motion pictures has regressed – when it comes to visual elegance and satisfying storylines – to a state more primitive than its origins.
Aquaman was directed by James Wan, an Australian who became a Hollywood gun for hire after breaking through with the low budget horror film Saw. He lacquers plastic décor and sets that resemble Windows desktops and establishing shots that look like screensavers with a sticky artificial sheen. The function of this gleaming pile of visuals is to then light them up with blindingly bright computer effects, in service of a single core message – ‘look, shiny!’ – repeated ad infinitum. The bombast is joyless and moments when the film attempts a modicum of dramatic meaning are even worse.
In one scene, the ripped titular hero (Jason Momoa) encounters Princess Mera (Amber Heard) playing a flute on a small boat, beneath a creamy watercolour sunset. In a wishy-washy exchange typifying Aquaman’s algorithm-like dialogue, Mera, dressed in clashing lipstick red hair and gaudy green jumpsuit, wistfully informs her super buff companion that he is “the bridge” between the land and the water; the spiritual force capable of connecting earth’s two disparate fundamental properties. “I can see that now,” she says, while proverbial fingernails run down the blackboard. “Can you?”
The bald truth is that action scenes in studio-dictated brand assets such as Aquaman are, in effect, directed by nobody.
Mera’s inconsequential role in the narrative is visualised in one shot that swaps her out for Willem Dafoe (who plays Vulko, a functionary high up the pecking order in Atlantis) as the camera swings behind her and Aquaman’s backs. Rarely are the roles of the male mentor and the nymphet so confusingly meshed. The plot regurgitates elements part and parcel with standard-issue medieval stories, endless yakety yak contemplating matters such as duelling dynasties, family and political allegiances, provocation and conciliation during wartime and the question of who is the ‘true’ king.
Certainly not the wicked Orm aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), who has the gall to admonish his enemies for belonging to “a kingdom of bloated philosophies.” Perhaps he is speaking from the frustrated perspective of an antagonist of a film that has no philosophies at all – aside from an obvious inclination to keep the DCEU a homogenised entity so broadly appealing it ultimately appeals, on a personal level, to almost nobody at all. The film’s opening narration snatches a quote from Jules Vern to imply a fraudulent spiritual largesse; this film has the mythological heft of a wet t-shirt commercial.
The story moves from the sea to the desert to a lonely pier where a humble lighthouse keeper, played by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, waits for Nicole Kidman (Aquaman’s mother) to emerge from the water. The bloated 143 minute running time stretches what could have been breezy Saturday matinee globetrotting escapades into dispensable slow moving portions, calculated to show the hero landing buttered side up no matter the circumstance. James Wan, who can be an exciting director (with an oeuvre including the sensational Fast & Furious 7) finds room to experiment in handsome scene-to-scene transitions, such as morphing the frame into a snow cone, but never in actual scenes themselves: the artistic equivalent of a splash of salad dressing.
It was recently reported that Marvel executives approached Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel about potentially directing a Black Widow movie, telling told her “don’t worry about the action scenes” because “we will take care of that.” The common take was that this provided another example of institutionalised sexism in Hollywood, the director’s gender restricting her access to key parts of the filmmaking process. But the bald truth is that action scenes in studio-dictated brand assets such as Aquaman are, in effect, directed by nobody. If artists like Wan or Martel use words such as “auteur” or “artistic integrity” in pre-production meetings they can expect to get laughed at (or frog marched) out of the room.<
Superhero movies occasionally have a strong authorial sense (like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and/or become interesting cultural events using old narrative templates to reflect modern sentiments (like Black Panther). Aquaman is neither, with a cookie cutter style that is chillingly inhuman. You could remove all names from the end credits and no audience member would care; no-one would bat an eyelid. Like Avengers: Infinity War, Aquaman was designed to reduce viewers to a state of numbness where they are incapable of thinking or feeling. And it was made by people who seemed to have arrived at that point well before their audience.