Review: Aquaman is a relentlessly soggy slog to wade through

He holds this pose for like ten seconds.

A tech bro as a $200 million superhero movie, Aquaman is the once-dorky guy turned unbearable douche by way of unearned success (thanks for somehow making $658 million, Justice League!), some workouts, and obnoxiously boisterous binge drinking. As previously seen in the DCEU and star Jason Momoa’s general persona, the film reinvents the lame, fish-loving superhero as a buff, unkempt, casually alcoholic good ol’ boy, taking his long-haired, bearded, ‘90s reinvention to the next miserable level. Spending an unconscionable 143 minutes explaining why this dude and his movie are totally awesome (the title character literally screams “this is bad-ass!” at the sight of some sandy ruins), Aquaman ends up desperately pathetic, still verbally asserting “this is gonna be fun!” in its final minutes. It’s not.

Unintentionally foreshadowing the interminable rom-com to grossly fill out its distended midsection, Aquaman opens on an abbreviated Up sequence by way of an imbecile. In Maine, a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison, wearing somehow only the second shittiest wig in this thing) stumbles upon a woman unconscious on the shore. She is Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), an Atlantean named as vilely as a Brooklyn girl named BrookeLynn. Through a brief montage, we’re meant to accept that the two fall in love, and consequently birthed this fucking movie by way of their titular offspring. But their love is not to last: still within this same sequence, some armored guys, seemingly from the hypothetical Halo: Deep Sea, arrive and immediately start fighting her. Though she promptly calls for “[her] weapon!!!” (like it was still TBD what the weapon would be in the script, even though the answer is always a goddamn trident) and wins the fight, the event sends her back into the sea like so many an unwilling mother.

Twenty-some years later—following the events of Justice League, in response to a nonexistent call for encore—Momoa’s Aquaman is off day-drinking with “pops” (as he incessantly calls him) and dealing with seemingly only maritime crimes. That extremely specific task leads him to a Russian sub, which, as seen in trailers, he enters with a grotesquely rapey, coquettish “permission to come aboard.” He’s there to stop a team of father-son sub pirates, which are apparently a thing in this world. Long story short, he makes a real enemy of the son (The Get Down’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who later becomes one of Aquaman’s central but still scarcely recognizable enemies, Black Manta.

Yet, like so many wretched superhero sequels of yore, Aquaman is not content with but a single cartoonish villain. Turns out, the main baddie is actually Aquaman’s half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson, in his latest and more pitiable masked role), who’s trying to unite the water- and CGI-drenched kingdoms to claim the title of… wait for it… OCEAN MASTER. Yes, it’s a name from the comics, but it’s nonetheless a tougher pill to swallow every time he announces it.

Orm’s reason for becoming, you know, OCEAN MASTER, is that he hopes to wage war with the humans of land. See (as briefly explained in yet another montage), his people used to be land people, but then, after discovering a literal perpetual fucking energy machine, their city crumbled into the water. And, instead of, like, swimming to land and restarting, they decided, “Fuck it. Let’s just live here.”

Consequently and still going on about this, Atlantis was born of an absurdly rapid evolution, where, in a couple thousand years, these people not JUST became a superhuman, water-breathing society—they ALSO had treed evolutions that led to grotesque freaks and proper mer-people alike. It’s an elaborate backstory that, for the first time, begs for more incredulity than the Aquaman character itself.

Anyway, that brings us to the Atlantis of modern times: both extremely futuristic and utterly backwards. So, the most current, relevant element of the entire film. The city is an Avatar by way of jellyfish imagery, a bunch of neon-glowing garbage Temuera Morrison almost certainly smuggled in from the unfortunate times in his Green Lantern and Star Wars prequel tenure. Orm is in league with whoever Dolph Lundgren is playing to wage war on land-man. So whoever Dolph Lundgren is playing’s daughter, Mera (Amber Heard, memorable only for having THE worst wig), heads ashore to recruit Aquaman to take over as Atlantis’s king and, apparently, Ocean Master or whatever.

Her fear is that “billions will die—your people and mine.” Given that we’re explicitly shown that her people are nigh-invincible, that seems unlikely, but sure. It’s enough to send Aquaman on his quest for the crown, pitting him against Orm in an incongruous coliseum battle that puts weapon to weapon. Which is to say: trident to trident, obviously.

But if all that still leaves you wanting to chew some more Trident, don’t worry. That’s merely the setup for the MacGuffin: you guessed it, another goddamn trident. But this one glows!

At best, the struggle leads to what’s almost certainly an accidental metaphor for toxic masculinity. Über-bro goes up against a proper pretty-boy in a world where, explicitly, even the more competent women aren’t allowed to be “king”; Aquaman and Orm face off and repeatedly shatter each others “weapons,” until our hero is finally able to achieve the ultimate emasculation—winning both his cucked foe’s fiancée and the biggest dick! Er, trident.

At worst, it leads to, well, just a pretty awful movie at almost every level. The abysmal script gives lines that are entirely composed of exposition or pithy nonsense—and the action couldn’t be less thought out. When Aquaman and Mera, their main power being SWIMMING, take a Phantom Menace-style sub-craft, it’s almost as bad as Superman using a personal jet; when they literally sail on a small, fisherman’s boat instead of, again, SWIMMING, it’s outlandishly unforgivable. The green-screening is likewise atrocious—just when you think a chained hunk before a gold-armored guy, with Lundgren involved, couldn’t be worse than Masters of the Universe, Aquaman does it somehow less convincingly—harkening back to CD-era video game trash. Even the SOUND is notably awful! From the out-of-nowhere underwater clanging, to the near-deafening unsheathing of a knife, to Momoa’s anime-style exaggerated grunting, to the truly inexplicable music cues (thanks, Pitbull!), Warner Bros. and director James Wan have really buried their head in the sand on this one. And that’s before the absurd half hour when Aquaman becomes a desert-based, screwball rom-com—a would-be Romancing the Stone by way of adventuring straight to video.

Though it thankfully returns supporting star Willem Dafoe to his perfectly oddball seaside haunting grounds of The Life Aquatic, Aquaman offers little else. It’s almost explicitly the antithesis of what made Ant-Man work, taking a thought-lame creature-speaker not into the comedic but toward the eye-rollingly “cool.” It’s saying a lot that this is an unfathomably deep depth for the DCEU to dive into.

Grade: D

Aquaman
Director: James Wan
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 143 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman

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