By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Visuals + action rating:
Story + dialogue rating:
I have two ratings for “Aquaman” because I was legitimately entertained and found this movie to be visually gripping. I will also never watch it ever again.
Jason Momoa is the first reason to watch this
I have loved Jason Momoa since his “Baywatch Hawaii” days (1999-2001). I think he’s a really fun, charismatic actor who also happens to be Hawaiian and beautiful-looking enough to nab heroic starring roles — which is a big deal for any person of color. (In Entertainment Weekly’s recent Aquaman interview with Momoa, he talked about how people always want to hire him to play the villain because of his ‘look,’ which makes me roll my eyes.
He also talked about how he got to audition for Batman with director Zack Snyder, and this is how he felt about it: “This is bullshit. I’m not a white guy. I ain’t playing Batman.”)
So I think it’s really brilliant and meaningful that Momoa is playing a character that has always been super white, super blond, and super dorky. I imagine that a native Hawaiian might find things to criticize about how the culture was referenced in “Aquaman,” but since I unfortunately don’t have intimate knowledge of the culture, I found the Hawaiian nods in “Aquaman” to be numerous, really charming, and just fresh. It is so cool to go to a DC superhero movie and not just see a bunch of white people stuff.
At the beginning of the movie, as the audience was given a lot of backstory, I realized that when an actor who is not white gets hired in a starring role, it also affects secondary and tertiary characters. It provided roles for other Pacific Islanders, like Temuera Morrison, who played Arthur Curry/Aquaman’s dad and who is the only character I ever emotionally engaged with in this movie. Momoa’s casting also provided roles for six young actors who played Arthur at different ages in flashbacks.
And beyond just how he looks, Jason Momoa is honestly really great in this role. He has accomplished the gargantuan task of making Aquaman not look like a dorky loser standing next to Batman and Superman. He makes Aquaman cool as hell. He is great in the action scenes (his stunt doubles were beyond great), and he is great at delivering dialogue that made me want to groan and die because it was so corny. Momoa even made talking to fish look cool. Like, do you know how hard this is? I don’t either. But it seems hard.
James Wan is the second reason to watch this
The picture that “Aquaman” director James Wan (“Furious 7,” “Saw,” “The Conjuring”) paints is real trippy and super unexpected. Wan is Australian, Malaysian, and ethnically Chinese. A big deal wasn’t really made of an Asian helming such a big budget, high-profile superhero action movie, but guys, it is a huge deal!
Directing big movies is such a job for a white man, and I realized this so hard as I was watching “Aquaman,” because so many things were such novelties. While there were no recognizably Asian characters in this movie (besides Randall Park, who plays a passionate and crazy scientist, and Ludi Lin, who does a really great job, but I couldn’t tell because they made him look white as hell in this movie!), there were a crap ton of nods to East Asian culture that seemed to be in there for no other reason than Wan just felt like it would be cool.
Willem Dafoe plays Nuidis Vulko, who is basically Aquaman’s Obi-Wan, and he pretty much sports hair that is reminiscent of a chonmage or some other Asian warrior topknot. He teaches young Aquaman how to fight with a trident, and he could’ve been all white about it and made him just stab people with prongs all the time, but instead, he was super Asian and elegant about it. All of the fight scenes in “Aquaman” are dancelike and look like some sort of Asian martial art. The underwater fight sequences were filmed on wires, so the feel of it was really reminiscent of Hong Kong action movies.
Atlantis also looks like every Asian city ever, but underwater. I was surprised to see how technologically advanced Atlantean society is — because I was expecting Little Mermaid visuals — but Atlantis was washed in just a bunch of bright, colorful, cool neon lights.
Now, the dicey bits: race and ethnicity
Hollywood movies tend to flatten the nuances of people to make them into heroes or villains. Hollywood tends to make white people super rich and super cultured, and they tend to make people of color poor and unrefined. “Aquaman” had this problem.
Beyond Aquaman and his family, people of color inhabited really basic roles, like “naysayer” or “coward,” while white people had really meaty roles, like “Ocean Master with serious Mommy issues.” The non-white fake-cultures depicted in the film, like the crustacean kingdom, the desert kingdom, or the scary hellfire kingdom, are also in ruins or not as technologically advanced.
Also, Academy Award-nominee Djimon Hounsou played The Fisherman King (like, he’s an anthropomorphic fish, guys) who just gets bullied around by a bunch of white guys and takes it. It’s freaking Djimon Hounsou! I didn’t even know it was him because of all of the CGI. I only just learned this like, three seconds ago!
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II played Black Manta, a villain who seemed extraneous in this movie, whose motivations for being so pissed at Aquaman seemed illogical and pointless.
Ludi Lin plays Murk, a henchman. You cannot even tell he is Asian in this movie because they made him blond and blue-eyed. I think it’s because Atlanteans are really racist and the filmmakers wanted to keep this detail consistent, so every Atlantean has to be blond and blue-eyed in order for Arthur to stand out in contrast. See what I mean? It’s really oversimplified.
I’m not saying people of color shouldn’t play villains or anti-heroes ever. I’m just saying it sticks out to me when all of the white people in the movie have no Black friends.
Ah, this movie tried to trick me into thinking it’s kinda feminist, but it’s not
I’ve been reading a lot of reviews about how this movie is really female-forward compared to Marvel superhero movies. Mera (played by Amber Heard) features really prominently in the movie and seems hyper competent and knowledgeable all the time — embodying the perfect counterpoint to Aquaman’s dimwittedness, his insecurities, and his reluctance to be a hero. Like, that is their dynamic. She keeps risking her entire life by believing in him, and he keeps doubting enough and screwing around enough that we get scared that all of the world’s oceans are going to die because of this guy’s lackadaisical inability to follow simple directions.
Yeah, Mera is cool. So why isn’t this freaking movie about her? Why isn’t she savior of all? Why isn’t this intelligent woman constantly punching Aquaman in the face and telling him to get the hell over his non-problems?
Why does her battle costume impractically show so much boob? Why doesn’t she get sick of telling him that he is The Chosen One? When, in the course of trying to save the world, did these two find time to develop enough romantic feelings for one another that they had the time to stop in the middle of an epic battle scene where fishies are just dying in droves to make out with each other?
That’s a spoiler, guys. Except it is not. Because we all know what the point in having women around is. It’s just to make the guy feel better about himself and to give him someone to make out with at the end of the movie. Duh.
Also, fun fact. Nicole Kidman plays Atlanna, Aquaman’s mom. She is 51, the same age as Momoa’s real-life wife (Lisa Bonet). Now get this, Patrick Wilson, 45, plays her other son and also Aquaman’s younger half-brother, Orm/Ocean Master. Momoa is 39.
These facts were maddening as I was watching the movie. I couldn’t turn on my phone to look up their ages, but the whole time, my brain was screaming, “I am pretty sure Nicole Kidman is not old enough to be their mom! I am pretty sure Patrick Wilson is old as hell!”
I’m not saying that I can’t use my imagination and imagine that Atlanna was a child bride who got caught in a really unhealthy and predatory situation, and that’s why she’s such a young mom. I’m saying that Hollywood hates it when women get old. This woman is also an Oscar winner, by the way.
Man, the story and the dialogue are crazy. Crazy bad.
Here’s a part of the film, of many parts, that made me cringe and want to die. I am not overstating this at all:
Arthur: I’m not a king.
Mera: Atlantis has always had a king. Now it needs something more.
Arthur: But what could be greater than a king?
Atlanna: A hero.
Oh my Goddd, do people actually say this to each other in real life? And why are these two women working so hard to convince this guy to do the right thing? Oh my God, what are our children learning about gender roles when they go to these movies?
Beyond that, the movie clocks in at nearly 2.5 hours. It’s a long movie. It’s also a quest movie, so we just see Aquaman and Mera aimlessly going from place to place to try and get this trident so that Aquaman can use it to beat the crap out of his little brother, because his little brother is being a petulant weakling because he’s so pissed that his mom escaped an abusive relationship and found a healthy, loving one on land. Aquaman’s little brother can’t handle that his dad got so pissed that his betrothed ran away to have a healthy relationship, so he overreacted a lot and sent a bunch of murderers to drag her back to the ocean. After he violently pulled her back into his clutches, he showed her who is big and bad by sending her to depths of the ocean to die for her transgressions. And freaking Orm blames his brother for the loss of their mother. He started a crazy war because he’s an emotional idiot.
The other thing is that this movie tries to be kind of environmentally positive? Like, the other reason the Atlanteans want to go to war with the surface is because the Atlanteans are just so pissed that the surface-dwellers keep polluting their waters and killing their fish.
So they show they care about fish by like, using sharks as horses and making sharks ram into each other headfirst until they die en masse and stuff. I don’t even know. Some of the beautiful-looking underwater fight scenes were hard for me to watch because all of these fake marine animals were dying in front of my face, and it just felt wrong, especially since they stated earlier in the movie that they wanted to preserve marine life. I just don’t know, guys.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.