If Aquaman was a worse movie, it would have been a better one

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When the trailers for DC’s Aquaman started rolling out earlier this year, they promised a lot of wild delights. There were angry aquarium sharks. A bioluminescent Atlantis, equal parts Gungan city and Avatar planet. An underwater reenactment of the Thor-vs.-Hulk gladiator showdown in Thor: Ragnarok. Patrick Wilson’s deeply upsetting hair. At the top of that list, of course: a perpetually shirtless, perpetually wet Jason Momoa. In fact, the promise of a DC film knowingly indulging the female gaze — and in an over-the-top abundance worthy of some of the best-worst movies of the past decade — was such a strong implication in those early promos that it inspired a very good meme.

The finished film certainly puts Shirtless Momoa™ on the table. All the beats previewed in the trailers do, in fact, turn up in the film itself. By all accounts, as Polygon’s Karen Han put it, “this movie has everything.” Yet that checklist is, more or less, all Aquaman amounts to: a two-hour, 23-minute extended cut of the trailer — smirky one-liners, Lisa Frank-worthy underwater cities, and all.

But that alone isn’t enough to save this, the wettest DC movie to date, from falling short of what it could have been. Aquaman isn’t disappointing because it’s predictable, or because it’s awful. What fool among us expects true cinematic greatness of a DC film at this point? Aquaman is disappointing because it isn’t awful enough.

This movie — which seemed as though it might finally bring DC Entertainment into full, self-aware bloom as the superhero-movie factory that thrives not in high-end prestige storytelling, but in the chaos of decadent insanity — deserved to be far, far more deranged than it is. Maybe writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall tried too hard to rationalize the material, updating one of DC’s weirder, quainter heroes into something modern. Maybe director James Wan actually takes his work seriously, and doesn’t have enough screws loose to fully throw artistic caution to the wind.

Whatever the case, Aquaman falls into an uncomfortable try-hard dead zone that leaves it in better shape than, say, Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad, but just shy of the gleefully anarchic predecessors whose ranks it could have joined, like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

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Some spoilers for Aquaman follow, but again, most of this is also in the trailers.

The plot is, again, exactly what the previews promise, and nothing more: Arthur Curry (Momoa) is the illicit lovechild of Maine lighthouse-keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and the washed-ashore Atlantian Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). He has no interest in Atlantis, until his younger brother, Atlantean king Orm (Wilson), decides to consolidate the kingdoms and powers of the sea to become “Ocean Master,” so he can wage war on the “surface-dwellers” who are polluting the oceans. To save humanity, Arthur must return to Atlantis — with the aid of Orm’s betrothed, the stubborn Princess Mera (Amber Heard) — to find a legendary trident, defeat his brother with it, and claim his rightful place as King. It’s Camelot, it’s The Lion King, it’s a goddamn patriarchal monarchy where a couple of utterly poreless white women in phenomenally bad wigs get a fight scene or two.

There are a fair number of extra plot tidbits along the way — 143 minutes is quite the space to fill. After Atlanna returned to Atlantis to protect the secret of their family, Arthur is told, she was executed for attempting to escape her arranged marriage to the king. In her stead, royal advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) — in his inexplicably ample free time away from his duties to King Orm — visits Arthur on the surface, teaching him to fight and swim in the ways of his people. The teacher-turned-fascist from The 100 (Michael Beach) is the embittered father of B-plot villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a capable underwater pirate whose vendetta against Aquaman leads to a ludicrously expensive-looking yet admittedly impressive extended chase-and-fight scene in an Italian seaside town. On top of that, there are dinosaurs in the core of the earth, in a reveal taken so utterly for granted that not a single character comments on it.

Photo: Warner Bros. / DC Comics

It’s clear that fans are just supposed to relish the rococo decadence of all of this, from the massive neon underwater world to the vast armies of CGI riding-fish. There’s a level of self-awareness in Aquaman’s more grandiose images and plot movements that’s certainly been missing from previous DC movies. The story is so deliberately corny that it’s never really moving, no matter how much it reaches in the direction of emotion.

But too many aspects of the story hold together in deceptively irrational ways, which fits poorly with a film about a tattooed man-fish looking for a magic fork. Orm sounds perfectly reasonable when he’s plotting his revenge on the toxic, imperialist humans, but he’s also a megalomaniac who really wants people to call him Ocean Master. A compelling villain with a sympathetic platform is better than gold in these times, and much harder to find, even in Marvel’s house of hits. Orm’s apparent sincerity, and his serious point about the surface-dwellers, feels out of step with the rest of his deal. A movie framed like Aquaman calls for a Balem Abrasax, not an Erik Killmonger.

Other potential entry points for bananapants antics are left unexamined. Aquaman features an entire subspecies of actual fish people, for example. They seem to be the pacifist philosophers of the sea, but they exist solely so they can be conquered in a 60-second scene. There’s a crustacean nation whose battle scene evokes the dwarves of Middle Earth facing the endless monsters of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, yet the film only doles out a few brief lines from their leader. The audience is rushed into and out of entire new kingdoms and species of underwater sentients as though the camera operator showed up late to work and was trying to make up for lost time. Every cuts feels like a resentful compromise with the studio — the 143-minute run time drags, while still not feeling like nearly enough time to cover this much ground.

Photo: Warner Bros. / DC Comics

And while Mera seems entirely capable herself, with her water-manipulation powers (also never commented on by anyone in the film) and wild combat skills, she still does an astonishing amount of legwork in an effort to install a hostile, self-described dummy as her people’s leader. (Because One True King, Chosen One, traditional fish-monarchy something something.) Meanwhile, there isn’t enough shirtless-Momoa screen time. After a wave of advertising focused primarily on his chest, its actual presence in the film feels minimal, to a degree that borders on fraudulent.

Garbage cannot be delectable garbage if viewers feel in control while watching it. Jupiter Ascending, for example, requires that the audience give up any notion of predictability or reason within the first 10 minutes. And filmmakers cannot give the world a Troll 2 if they’re actively seeking to make Troll 2. Aquaman’s stunt CG, and laugh-out-loud clunky lines like “Where I come from, the sea carries away our tears” are not enough to qualify a film for the Exquisite Trash Hall of Fame.

That all said, Aquaman is nevertheless a step in the right direction for Warner Bros. and the DC Universe. It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a studio that has spent a decade investing in dark, brooding self-seriousness to flip its script with one film, no matter how many Baja hoodies, Rainbow sandals, and literal krakens they throw at it. It’s clear the company is finally starting to get the joke, though, and to loosen up. “That was the worst pep talk. Ever.” is about as far as the humor goes in Aquaman, but what humor it does summon is still a relief after so many sour, dour DC movies. Get Taika Waititi and the Wachowskis to consult on the inevitable sequel’s script, and DC will be well on its way to fully realizing its true legacy.