Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Justice League
Justice League may be struggling, but Aquaman still continues apace – can it correct problems the character from the team-up? Thus far, there aren’t a lot of positives for Warner Bros and DC Extended Universe fans coming out of the release of Justice League: the reviews are overwhelmingly negative, the social-media response has been tepid and it wound up with the worst opening-weekend box office of the entire franchise so far. Not the disaster that greeted Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, to be sure, but not the rapturous response earned by Wonder Woman and significantly less enthusiastic than the waves of enthusiasm still crashing over Thor: Ragnarok.
Much of this is being pinned on the film itself, particularly an awkward narrative and disjointed tone apparently resulting from bringing in Joss Whedon to significantly re-tool the project after a family tragedy called Zack Snyder away from his post-production duties, but many are also laying the blame on the film’s franchise predecessors.
Audiences weren’t thrilled with a lot of Man of Steel, especially it’s controversially ultra-violent ending. Batman v Superman (which attempted to recontextualize those very criticisms) was itself derided for a bloated running time, excessively dark tone and confusing, overstuffed storyline. Suicide Squad received a similar critical lambasting, but perhaps less conspicuously as it isn’t nearly as well known or loved a property as the other two. And while Wonder Woman remains the superhero success story of the year, especially in terms of its reception by the under-served female audience, it can’t escape notice that it’s also the film least tangibly connected to the rest of the DCEU lineup – and though Gal Gadot remains compelling, few are suggesting that she’s able to “save” Justice League the way they did when her cameo livened up Dawn of Justice.
In fact, character-reception has proved an especially mixed bag for Justice League, with Gadot getting high marks for her return to Wonder Woman but appraisals of Ben Affleck’s Batman mainly centering on his barely concealed (and well-documented in the press) desire to abandon the role. Many critics came away enamored with Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, but also criticizing everything from the spotty special effects used to realize both characters to the rushed informality of their backstory information-dumps. Audiences do seem enamored of Henry Cavill’s (not very) surprising resurrection as a suddenly more classically-inspired Superman, but much less so of the confusing machinations used to abruptly bring him back to life and the lack of cohesion with his previous appearances. But the character who’s probably faring the worst is Jason Momoa as Aquaman – or, rather, “Arthur Curry – THE Aquaman” as he’s introduced by Affleck.
While Momoa is a popular fixture among the press and the convention circuit owing to his outsize personality and impressive physique, the 38-year-old Hawaiian-born actor has largely failed to register as a major screen presence outside of his celebrated turn as Kahl Drogo on Game of Thrones. A much-hyped leading role in the reboot of Conan The Barbarian was a box office flop, while most of his other film appearances have been in lower-budget outings without much in the way of actual release. His eventual solo turn as Aquaman (after having been formally introduced in Justice League) will be easily the biggest project he’s ever headlined and put him in the history books as the first actor of Indigenous descent to take the lead in the major superhero movie and the first live-action cinematic incarnation of this particular character – one with the dubious distinction of being one of the most well-known of the DC pantheon… but largely because he’s often framed as a punchline in popular culture (Justice League even gets in on the act, with Bruce Wayne dropping a “talks to fish” joke in their first scene together).
But while both Momoa himself and the rest of Justice League are working almost absurdly hard to shake off the cultural-conception of Aquaman as an orange and green-costumed goof who rides seahorses, summons oceanic friends for assistance and serves a dubious function within the otherwise land-locked Superfriends team, the results are mixed – at best. He’s certainly trying to be the “coolest” member of the team, written with a flippant attitude and American biker-bro affect that at least makes him stand out from the rest of the squad but doesn’t seem to be grounded in much beyond that it (sort of) pairs with his haircut and beard.
That’s where a lot of the empty feeling comes in regarding the character: he’s onhand mainly because Aquaman is supposed to be there for the Justice League’s founding, but they aren’t facing an even remotely water-adjacent foe, so apart from a few swimming/water-manipulating bits early on Momoa is oddly adrift; he ultimately functions during the big final battle with Steppenwolf as little more than “Boy Wonder Woman, Plus Silly Trident.” Beyond that, the incidental plot detail of his people having been one of the Motherbox protectors and being the logical choice for the perhaps inevitable “someone doesn’t realize they’ve been touching the Lasso of Truth while speaking” gag, there’s not really a lot of reason for Aquaman to be around. It’s hardly surprising to learn good amounts of his backstory were cut. As a result, he’s easily the weakest and most superfluous-feeling member of the team-up – but maybe that’s a blessing in disguise.
Wonder Woman certainly benefited from having her entire backstory and much of the details of her world left untouched by Batman v Superman, allowing director Patty Jenkins relative freedom to create a fresh world that captivated global audiences with its high-fantasy reimagining of World War I Europe and compelling vision of the Amazons’ utopian all-female society. Audiences were particularly taken with the unique action scenes built around Diana’s superhuman-but-not-quite-Superman physicality and the transformative setpiece of the other Amazons fending off German invaders with swords and arrows is still the subject of think pieces. Aquaman’s Atlantis doesn’t have quite as much leeway, since we’ve seen more of both him and it in Justice League, but there’s at least a template to work from.
Whatever form Aquaman takes as a feature (Warner Bros has been fairly reluctant to show much of it off, perhaps waiting for Justice League’s reception), it at least has some impressive pedigree going for it. Along with Momoa, the film is set to feature Patrick Wilson as Ocean Master and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta (the presumed villains of the piece), Willem Dafoe and a returning Heard among the other Atlanteans, Nicole Kidman as Aquaman’s mother (presumably in flashbacks), Temuera Morrison as his father and cult-action icon Dolph Lundgren as the ruler of a rival undersea kingdom.
If anything can set things right for Aquaman, though, it would be director James Wan. A proven blockbuster creator who balances big budgets and ideas, he reportedly wrangled creative freedom on the project, allowing him free reign on Curry’s origin story. Let’s just hope he’s up to the task.
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