Marvel and DC have fought for domination within the superhero genre since 2013, when DC jumped on the bandwagon of extended universes with the release of Man of Steel. Though both brands are enjoying success, Marvel films are generally more lauded than DC’s offerings. While Marvel has smashed records and sparked hype with Avengers Infinity War and Black Panther, DC has disappointed fans and critics alike with Justice League. Though its latest offering of Aquaman has set records for Warner Bros. in China and beaten Infinity War in presales, its lack of depth and complexity won’t help DC in struggling out from the shadow of its rival. It is far superior to Justice League, but is certainly no Wonder Woman.
After brief appearances in Batman v Superman and Justice League, we finally discover Arthur Curry’s origin story. The underwater Kingdom of Atlantis, ruled by Arthur’s half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson), seeks to unite the people of the Ocean and to strike against the surface world. In a typical tale of origin-seeking and assuming of responsibility, it is up to Aquaman to prevent a full-scale war by reclaiming his birthright and searching for the Trident of Atlan.
In a time when we are persistently warned by scientists of the dangers of global warming and rising sea levels, the plot’s focus on the issue of sea pollution makes Aquaman surprisingly topical. But the film fails to take full advantage of this contemporary conundrum. The war between land and sea is not fully resolved at the end of the film – though Arthur is accepted as King of Atlantis, the issue of the damage being inflicted upon the ocean is left hanging in the air. The film narrows down its set-up of an expansive conflict to a simple battle for a throne, yet fails to do so with the excitement and ingenuity managed by shows such as Game of Thrones.
Yet director James Wan has created enchanting visuals, as the film delights in the colourful and vibrant shots of Atlantis that seem to transport the viewer to this hidden and alien world. The well-choreographed fight scenes provide the excitement and tension – a scene in which Arthur prevents a group of pirates from hijacking a nuclear submarine stands out as particularly visually enthralling. This is a film made to be enjoyed on the big screen. Its heavy reliance on CGI is not, for once, a pitfall, but creates a magical effect in bringing a setting as complexly imaginative as Atlantis to the screen.
But what the film makes up for in visuals, it loses in character dynamic. The intimacy between Arthur and Princess Mera (Amber Heard) feels forced. The relationship between the two offers enough to the viewer without an unnecessary addition of romance, and the romance itself offers little to the plot. Wan could perhaps learn from Rogue One’s presentation of a compelling relationship between male and female protagonists that does not rely on romance. The forbidden love between the Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) is an example of better writing, however, and imbues the film with the air of fairytale through a touching and beautifully shot opening scene.
DC is known for being tonally darker than Marvel, but Aquaman feels lighter than previous entries, though the attempts at humour fluctuate between being delivered with perfect comedic timing and falling completely flat. The crucial let-down remains the lack of depth given to the majority of the characters – even Jason Momoa’s Aquaman could have been fleshed out more. This superficial use of character is disappointing, as DC manages to cultivate character complexity in their TV work, particularly in Legends of Tomorrow, that somehow fails to translate into their films.
Aquaman makes for pleasant viewing, but proves unable to repeat Wonder Woman’s winning formula. Marvel manages a successful balancing act of characterisation and plot that DC so far cannot live up to. If DC is ever to give Marvel a proper run for its money, it will have to start producing films that are much more than just ‘fine’.