The series of movies based on DC Comics superheroes is in terrible trouble, and also enormously successful. This has been the case more or less since 2013, when Warner Bros. reacted to both the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the end of its Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman trilogy by starting its own DC-based cinematic universe. Though they're roundly derided by many critics and fans (and not without cause), most of these DC movies have been financially successful. They do well enough to keep the studio from pulling the plug entirely, with the occasional Wonder Woman triumph chased by the inevitable Justice League disappointment.
Into this fray enters Aquaman, their latest superhero blockbuster, and their first to involve a character without the built-in recognition of Wonder Woman, Superman, or Batman (who made a cameo alongside some of his most famous enemies in Suicide Squad).
Financially, Aquaman will probably not be a turning point, though it will do well enough. But creatively speaking, James Wan's version of Joss Whedon's version of Zack Snyder's version of Aquaman may help with the elusive establishment of a DC house style — or lack thereof.
Initially, DC's thematic and visual sensibilities were yoked tightly to director Zack Snyder, who made Man of Steel and especially Batman v. Superman in a wannabe-deconstructionist mode that made an awkward fit with his formidable but unfocused eye for mythological imagery. Then the company hired Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon to rewrite and reshoot portions of Snyder's Justice League, resulting in a slapdash imitation of the lighter, funnier Marvel style. In the middle of all this was Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, which took some story cues from Marvel's Thor and Captain America, but struck an appealing middle ground between Snyder's self-seriousness and Marvel's desire to crowd-please.
Aquaman, like Wonder Woman, bears superficial resemblance to Marvel movies: It, too, has elements of Thor, here mixed with the comic-book psychedelia of the second Guardians of the Galaxy. James Wan is also, like Jenkins, a very talented filmmaker whose thematic concerns are not as distinctively or clearly articulated as Snyder's. If anything, this bro-with-a-heart-of-gold take on Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has been watered down from his supporting appearance in Justice League. He's another semi-reluctant hero torn between two worlds who makes quips and butts heads with a more serious-minded lady equivalent of himself (Mera, a warrior princess well-played by Amber Heard). His origins, as the offspring of a human and undersea-dwelling Atlantean royalty (guess which one Nicole Kidman plays), are relatively humble, and his destiny is predictably grandiose.
Stylistically, though, Aquaman looks nothing like any of this year's other superhero offerings. It's awash in purples, pinks, and blues; outfitted in eye-catching costumes (Mera, whose hair is scarlet red, changes from a bright-green catsuit to a jellyfish dress to desert whites); and overflowing with visual effects. Sometimes this stuff is gloriously imaginative, like the designs of its teeming, glowing underwater cities. Sometimes it's surprisingly chintzy, like Aquaman and Mera's heavily green-screened surface-world detour to Sicily. And sometimes the movie manages both at once, like when underwater factions battle each other astride sharks and sea-dragons in a kind of Avatar/Phantom Menace fantasia. It would not be accurate to call the movie's effects “convincing.” But they are memorable, even sometimes beautiful in their garish weirdness.
Wan doesn't just stand back and goggle at the world-hopping production design; he moves his computer like he's playing around with a simulator, computerizing impossible videogame angles and the trademark rapid camera-tilt effect he used in his Fast and Furious movie from a few years ago. As a stylist, he's not as forward-thinking as the Wachowskis (that they haven't yet been handed a DC movie seems a ridiculous oversight), but he engineers a similar much-ness.
“Too much” is standard business for a lot of blockbusters, and Aquaman is eventually exhausting. But like the just-released Sony cartoon Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse, the movie is energized by the possibilities of tackling the sheer weirdness of superhero comics, rather than tasked with grounding them for less comics-friendly audiences.
On its own, splattering crazy, brightly colored special effects across the screen isn't a sustainable blueprint for future DC movies. But Aquaman's delightful silliness does point to what these movies should have been doing all along: standing alone, rather than trying to reconcile the weird worlds of its various heroes for premature team-ups.
Aquaman and Wonder Woman, the two best entries in this series so far, both tell fish-out-of-water stories, tie superheroics into ancient gods and myths, and utilize some palace intrigue alongside their rom-com bantering. Yet even without a clear Nolan or Snyder-style imprint, they don't look or feel especially similar, to their great advantage.
The Marvel house style turns some of its movies into enjoyable clockwork exercises. Maybe DC's new thing should be crazy inconsistency.