What Do Superhero Franchise Have Left to Sell? –A Film Review on Aquaman

December 31, 2018 / by / 0 Comment

When flamboyant visual effects and identity politics did not prove to sell well, the superhero genre comes back flirting in one-liners with the re-definition of heroism—but will it really circumvent clichés?

Probably one of the better DC films in recent years but still faced battering from critics, Aquaman is directed by James Wan, a master of thrillers, who had to reserve his talents for suspense in a confining, self-indulgent superhero storyline, but arguably, did the best he could to save it.

“Aquaman” is a story whose ending is spoiled at the beginning—the audience are told that Arthur, the hero-to-be, will “be the bridge that connects the Land and the Sea”, despite that he looked just like every toddler sucking his thumb in the cradle with innocent looks. His mother, the escaped Queen of the underwater wonderland Atlantis, fell in love with a lighthouse keeper—the latter taught her an important life lesson about not eating goldfish at their first encounter, and before long she is kidnapped to Atlantis and is believed dead in a sacrifice. Aided and trained by his mother’s loyal advisor Vulko, Arthur discovers his superhero abilities and ends up wandering in the ocean, fighting pirates and saving submarines. In order to stop an imminent war between the land and the sea, Arthur embarks on an adventure with princess Mera from the underwater world. The ending is hardly a surprise: Arthur finds his mother, retrieves the omnipotent trident, stops the war, and becomes master of the sea.

Since the bland story has left the film little space for structural innovation, the content of the film has exploited James Wan’s penchant for action scenes and lavished dollars creating herds of unimportant sea-creatures amidst which Aquaman can swim, mapping out an extravagant blueprint for the state Atlantis, and frequently transporting the hero and heroine from one universe of fantasy to another. It has gone through a tedious process to prolong the expected ending with interpolations of a brittle villain who dies too early, a jealous half-brother who self-directs a Game-of-Thrones episode in his own government, and a couple of gargoyles from the ocean to get into the hero’s way. To be fair, it manages to capture the audience’s attention with all the dazzling special effects and CGIs, but it is done at the cost of a well-knit plot and meaningful content.

To add to the superficial splendour, the film also features a cast of Hollywood big-names—Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Nicole Kidman as his mother, Willem Dafoe as the advisor, and the list goes on. Sporting the beautiful bodies of Jason Momoa and Amber Heard (as Princess Mera), it also uses every opportunity, however irrelevant it may be, to get a full body shot of our heroine in her bodysuit and a close-up of our hero wet and shirtless. It makes perfect sense that Aquaman performs almost every fight half-naked, whether on land, in the sea or when he creeps into a Russian submarine unarmed to fight some well-equipped pirates. The modelling display appears to be another attempt in overemphasizing the viewing pleasure and a cover-up for the bombastic nature of the film.

At this point, we are left to wonder, how far can the superhero genre go? Should action films be made for action’s sake only? The year 2018 has already seen the failure of the anti-hero Deadpool (who turns out a self-indulgent jabberer in the second episode of the franchise), the horrid critical response towards Venom and a mixed reply to Marvel’s Black Panther–taking place in a distinct universe from all others. Will Aquaman, with a head full of punchlines and a righteous message to tell–”A King only fights for his country, but a hero fights for everyone”, add some freshness to the complex, entangled universes of superheroes by redefining heroism? But on the other hand, Aquaman has offered a clear-cut message to being heroes: it may not be secured by birthright, but that you have a mother who is the queen of Atlantis matters more than you probably think.

In the words of Richard Brody from the New Yorker, the superhero genre has morphed into a secular religion of today’s world. I doubt it is really the case for the masses, who are attracted not any longer by the “key messages”, or by heroism and the discussion around it, but are clinging to the momentary pleasure generated by the cinematic viewing experience, and then they forget about them, or worse, confuse them with one another because all appears so generic amid the products on the Hollywood assembly line.