‘Aquaman’ so objectively terrible it restarts the so-bad-its-good debate

by Simon Williams on December 20, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Before we begin, a response to the person who commented on my Suicide Squad review that it read less like criticism and more like an audition script for Big Bang Theory:

You wound me, sir.

I was aiming for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

We’ve had a long journey here, reader. I’ve been writing on these films since Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Failure in 2016, and we have been high and we have scraped excruciatingly low. My reviews for BvS and Suicide Squad were both met with derision and praise, to the point I’ve had people I’ve never met quote them at me without knowing I was the author. Wonder Woman gave us a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit dimmed, and Justice League brought us back to the darkness.

Now, with James Wan’s Aquaman, we get a final gasp for air. We have a vast, strange, idiosyncratic film with a fine artist at the helm who was granted near complete freedom. We had one last chance for redemption. And how do we fare?


This is the worst one.

And I love it.

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Aquaman is a plodding, bizarre, goofy and completely untamed mess of a movie that may well be one of the worst films ever made and I love it to death. It’s too long, has too much plot, almost no character, is terribly cast and has some of the worst dialogue of any major film in history.

It’s also certifiably insane and boasts some of the most incredible CGI effects work in history being put toward the weirdest, stupidest ideas to come to James Wan’s mind. Wan’s visual and technical acumen is here full blast but it ends up just drawing further attention to how poorly conceived the whole endeavor is and how ridiculous much of what happens on screen is. It feels like it was written on the fly by a man having an acid trip in his childhood bedroom. This film is just horrendous and silly and just fucking brilliant at it. At my critic’s screening there was active, full-throated laughter at dramatic monologues and applause at the finish. THIS is a So-Bad-It’s-Good-Masterpiece. THIS is my generation’s Showgirls or Waterworld.

Okay I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself again. I tend to do that. Aquaman is about a large half-Atlantean man played by the largest, prettiest man with no screen presence on Earth attempting to stop his hilariously dull looking half-brother from becoming Ocean Master, as term that never grows less silly no matter how seriously you say it. His brother (played by the famously boringly white-bread Americana Patrick Wilson in my favorite bit of miscasting I’ve ever seen) is King Orm of Atlantis, a man so driven by power lust that he will willingly slaughter fellow world leaders and fake terrorist attacks in an attempt to unite the sea but will happily concede power when his mommy comes to tell him to stop. Oh, SPOILERS by the way.

He has no real plan other than “Unite by Killing to Destroy the Humans” and is constantly throwing allies under the bus, provoking other nations instead of deepening ties, starting wars as an attempt to forge unity and straight up murdering other heads of state and yes I know I already said that but seriously he spends all this time concocting these elaborate stage show plans to diplomacy his way into power and then he gets to stage three and he decides “IMMA JUST KILL HIM” while standing in front of other leaders he has shaky relationships with anyway?

(I briefly considered the possibility this was a rather unsubtle jab at a certain modern presidential administration, added to the clear “9/11 was an inside job” allegory and the fact that Atlantis has big wall around it keeping out the riff-raff but then the movie reminded me it wasn’t actively thinking about anything deeper than “bad guy ride mosasaur now” and I put that thought on the back burner.)

On the other side is Arthur Curry, played by Jason Momoa, a man thought of as a hero in a scene ripped off from Thor: Ragnarok where he takes a selfie with some fans, despite the fact his big act of heroism we’ve seen thus far was in a tiny Eastern European country with no cameras capturing any of it. He is very large and very pretty and sometimes says lines that don’t really move the plot forward. He is played to be the awkward, relatable blue-collar hero despite the fact he is clearly just Khal Drogo. The movie is bending over backward to convince us he is at all a normal human with a normal life story, and not a famously obscenely attractive, giant human who looks like he could impregnate any other human just by winking too softly. He also mispronounces a lot of words and everyone just kind of rolls with it. It’s kinda fun.

To fill out the cast we have Amber Heard as The Little Mermaid, a love interest who is never given a real personality beyond “driven” and “snarky sometimes” who seriously looks an obscene amount like Ariel and the movie just like leans into it? Did they not think we’d make the connection? As well as Willem Dafoe earning that paycheck (yeah Willem, earn that paycheck), and Nicole Kidman as Nicole Kidman portraying the mom from How to Train Your Dragon 2 but without the human emotions.

There is also Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from The Get Down playing a character who might be named Black Manta but his grandfather in WWII was Black Manta and he’s working for the Atlanteans somehow for some reason to fake 9/11 and this review is a giant mess already I’m sorry.

Okay so I’ll be upfront (despite being about halfway through a review), I don’t know Aquaman. Aquaman has always always always seemed dull to me and thus I have never read any of the comics and have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe this is exactly what fans want. That said, this really does feel like some of the craziest shit ever put to screen.

Aquaman is very bad at explaining itself. Approximately 80% of the dialogue is either expository monologues adding ever new details, customs and plot threads that just pile up instead of going anywhere throughout the film or people looking to the human-raised Arthur Curry to go “You would not understand you are a half-breed.” The film spends so much time adding to the melodrama that it never gives us time to actually know any of it or our characters. There are points where the film feels almost like it was written from a transcript of someone explaining the script to a studio exec rather than actually written as a real film.

This would also explain the frequent, bizarre tonal shifts. The film oscillates from BvS style goth-epic drama to what I can only explain as feeling like a made-for-tv adventure series? Okay so has anyone else seen The Librarian on USA? Or maybe the original Hercules Series that spun off into Xena? It’s like that: brightly lit, attempting to be humorous, focused on light cleverness and series of simple, running-heavy action scenes. A long set piece set in a Sicilian seaside town in particular feels this way, complete with a few near-misses for a kiss between our lovers, Jason Momoa mispronouncing several Roman names, and an area puzzle ripped right out of the 90s PC game Myst.

This scene is followed by an action-chase scene with an inexplicable and really unnecessary Black Manta, then a horror-inspired sequence where their tiny boat is attacked by unnecessarily aggressive Marianas Trench-living Lovecraftian horrors. In any film this would be a series of extremely jarring shifts, and this is no exception.

This tonal shifting and lack of focus makes the film exceptionally hard to describe in full. Those who have read my previous DC/Warner Bros reviews know that plot descriptions have never been my bread and butter (my Justice League review famously just being a short story about Joss Whedon). But here I almost to make an attempt, perhaps just to solidify the film as a real thing and not just a mass fever dream experienced in the theater. Much like a dream, I am aware of how the film starts and ends, and I know the beats, but how it moves from scene to scene and what the plot actually is feels mysterious, distant. At times it feels like a David Lynch film where I am wandering from scene to scene, bumping into things and characters who definitely know what is going on and have passionate feelings about it while I remain confused, detached and concerned for my safety.

Questions arise throughout the film. Was the 9/11 truther-ism purposeful or accidental? Is the film an attempt at allegory or satire? Are the women purposefully removed of all personality or is that just an unfortunate mistake in editing? Was the whole DC universe just building us up for something this grandiose? How long has this movie been running? What was in my drink at dinner? Why is there a secret land of dinosaurs in the center of the Earth that nobody thinks is strange? Are you dreaming? Do you love this shit? Are you high right now? Do you ever get nervous? Is that Dolph Lundgren?

Yes, it is Dolph Lundgren.

This film is bad. Very, very bad. I hope I have made my feelings on that front very clear.

It actually does remind me quite a bit of Suicide Squad in a lot of ways. It’s haphazard, badly plotted, extraordinarily confused about its point, and extremely silly. Except Suicide Squad is grating, ugly, and petty. I laughed a lot at it in my review, but the film was a slog to get through. This, on the other hand, is honestly kind of glorious. It’s a type of bad only a great filmmaker can achieve, as its spectacle is outsized to the point of total absurdity and the silliest ideas are given enough care, gravitas and seriousness that it comes off less as an active mistake than a purposeful and deliberate decision to be goofy.

The casting of Patrick Wilson may be my favorite example of this. I referenced his white-bread nature earlier but really isn’t that his driving persona throughout his filmography? He’s a fine actor but he’s more fit to play small-town cops or the put upon ex-husband than King Of Atlantis and Ocean Master (never stops being funny). That was what inspired his casting as the Nite Owl in Watchmen, his everydayness lending an aura of exceptional unexceptionality to the middle-aged and weary caped boy scout. Here he feels like Bat-Dad. He reminds me of the one guy not tripping at the college party, making sure nobody drowns themselves or tries to kill the hallucinatory bats. He’s horribly miscast but he gives it his all, and the effect is rather endearing and silly.

Is ironic love true love? At the end of the day, no. Ironic, detached “so bad it’s good” affection really isn’t anything more than sophomoric cynicism, it always has been. That said, I’m no saint, and I had a blast with how miserable and awful Aquaman really is. It’s a trainwreck and will damage the careers of a lot of people and was a waste of talent of a lot of incredible animators and costume designers. Should you go see it? Probably not, but since when am I going to actually sway anyone? I’m small pickings and I know it.

This film doesn’t matter. None of these films do. Name recognition means more than anything and quality is out the window. Maybe, somehow, this is the giant, industry-reshaping disaster that moves us into a new era for Hollywood but I seriously doubt it. Venom couldn’t burn it down, this definitely won’t. This is just another speed bump on the tail end of an era of cinema that has stayed too long and gone stale. I’m just happy it’s a hallucinatory, surreal, and maddening version of that speed bump.

The tides of change have begun. Marvel takes steps closer and closer to being genuinely daring and subversive with every film. Sony gave up on being in control of their IPs and let the Lego Movie guys make something close to a masterpiece with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. We’re going to see a more interesting movement in popular cinema soon, but Aquaman isn’t that. Aquaman is your stoner roommate’s idea of an epic. Let’s enjoy the spectacle, but not pretend it’s worth anything real.


Simon Williams

Simon Williams is a media critic and filmmaker originally from Columbus Ohio. He makes short films about sad people who don’t speak their minds because he himself is a sad person who does not have that issue.


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