Monday, January 7, 2019

AQUAMAN (2018)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

AQUAMAN became one of DC's best-known heroes through a weird confluence of events: after a one-season cartoon devoted to his adventures, he became a regular participant in many seasons of the long-lived ABC animated series SUPER FRIENDS. Aquaman in his own cartoon came off like a tough if G-rated hero, but in SUPER FRIENDS, he was a literal fish out of water. As a result he was often reduced to a joke, a loser who couldn't do anything unless he could find some fish to do his fighting for him.

JUSTICE LEAGUE made some minor progress in dispersing the hero's dominant pop-culture image as a waterlogged wimp, but even here he was dwarfed by more colorful characters. His first feature-film, however, makes him a beefy brawler who can get shot by ray-guns and shrug it off with an "Ow." Throughout the film, both he and other members of his people, the submarine Atlanteans, are capable of ripping through steel and falling from planes with only minor scuff-marks.

Director James Wan, who's also credited on the original story, serves up a fast-paced quest tale with a lot of sprightly comic relief, often at the expense of the tough-guy hero. Thanks to a ton of CGI visual effects, Wan also has the distinction of bringing forth the most impressive incarnation of an undersea city of water-breathers-- though the list of such movies is pretty small to start with.

As the film starts, Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry, is still something of an enigma to the surface world, and he's a loner with no one in his life but his surface-dwelling father. Arthur's Atlantean mother Atlanna had fled her native city to escape a forced marriage. However, after a few years of marriage to Arthur's dad, she had to return to the sea in order to prevent the city's warriors from attacking her husband and son.

As an adult, this Aquaman occasionally prevents crime at sea, encountering early-on the violent pirate who will become the hero's best-known villain, Black Manta. However, he receives the call to kingship from Atlantean princess Mera. Arthur's half-brother Orm currently rules one of the seven realms spawned from the sinking of the original Atlantis, but he aspires to unite all of the realms-- including that of Mera's father Nereus-- in a massive war against the surface world. Aquaman, after seeing his own father almost killed by one of Orm's forays, signs on for the campaign.

Most of the characters in the story are defined simply, in terms of loyalty to their parents. Aquaman hates Atlantis because he's been told that the city-dwellers executed Atlanna for her transgressions. Mera is loyal to her father but doesn't want to be betrothed to Orm. (Comics-readers know that she's destined to be Arthur's love-interest, but Wan and crew keep the romance from seeming too pre-ordainted.) Black Manta wants to avenge the death of his father, Orm feels shame because of his mother's crimes, and that's about it.

The essential thrust of the quest is that Aquaman can only unseat Orm if he gains a fabulous trident from the first ruler of Atlantis, though he and Mera have to follow various clues to find the thing. Though the storyline lacks any of the major plot-problems seen in most Marvel Universe movies, there are some hiccups here. Once Mera and Arthur find their quest, Mera doesn't seem to realize that it's the legendary Trench, the very place where Atlanna was sacrificed-- and if that brief description doesn't signal to the individual viewer a major revelation for the hero, the viewer's just not paying attention.

Jason Momoa and Amber Heard don't always have the best interpersonal chemistry, but they both due yeoman work in bringing Aquaman and Mera to life. In fact, Mera's in the story so much that I tend to see her as being a partner-figure, rather than a supporting type-- just as she was in some if not all of the comics-serials. The script gives all of the characters memorable little bits, and though there are no major mythic concepts here, at least Wan and his collaborators don't fall on their faces as badly as the overambitious stories of BLACK PANTHER and CIVIL WAR.

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