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The Hero's Journey: Aquaman

January 24, 2019
3 min read time

Within the first fifteen minutes, we realize Aquaman is a superhero genre script, an origin story, and a buddy movie all rolled into two hours and 30 minutes. That is a hefty haul for most writers, but David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall have managed to pull off an enjoyable experience at the movies (see it in IMAX, if you can!).

We are rapidly introduced to our hero’s here-and-now: after his mother, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), escapes an arranged marriage beneath the sea, she cozies up to a Massachusetts lighthouse keeper. Through a quick — but fulfilling — montage, we watch the couple’s wonderful life that quickly grows to include little Arthur. Then, through a series of shocking events and appropriate time jumps, a grown-up Arthur finds himself swimming in the new world of Atlantis. It’s complicated beneath the sea. King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is poised to take over not only the seven realms of the deep, but also desires to control the entire world. Why stop at the ocean when the whole planet is up for grabs? It’s up to Aquaman to ensure that the status quo is kept on land, while he battles his way forward, quite literally, to protect the deep from his overzealous, power-hungry half-brother Orm. To help him along the way are his mentor (Willem Dafoe) and his new-found buddy, Mera (Amber Heard), as well as the distracting antagonist Manta (Abdul-Mateen). 

But here’s what is excellent about Aquaman. The title character is, in fact, the most exciting, dynamic character on screen at all times. His witty, sometimes schmaltzy, dialogue is consistent with his character (imagine a hipster superhero who eats 200g of protein a day and swims like a fish but isn’t Michael Phelps) and he nearly breaks the fourth wall in his ribbing jokes pulled from pop culture. 

The writers do a good job of keeping each character individualized. Each piece of dialogue has been well crafted to each character’s voice, tone, needs and wants. There are nudges to the importance of respecting cultures, folkways, and experiences as each character comes to this battle from a different perspective and outlook on life.

Even though Atlantis is fabled to have sunk off the Atlantic Ocean near Southwest Morocco, these Atlanteans speak in old Elizabethan-like, elevated dialogue. We know we’re underwater simply by their use of language. This makes Arthur’s word choice feel very distinct. Apparently, us land-bound folk have lost the effect of eons ago and the slang of 2018 is never so present as when Arthur speaks to his sea friends. 

Arthur himself is initially a passive protagonist. Things happen to him for the first 30 minutes (at least) of the film. He does his best to avoid the sea — and the hero’s journey — until a giant wave orchestrated by King Orm changes his mind. Still passive to this point, it’s a life-or-death choice that propels Arthur into his journey. For the first time, he’s active, and the viewer is ready for the exciting ride right alongside him.

The main characters fall into their archetypes with ease, including Vulko, Arthur’s mentor and Yoda of the deep; Miyagi of the sea. He takes Arthur under his scepter very early on, as we witness through a series of flashbacks inserted as the film trudges forward towards Arthur’s big battle (and bigger battle and biggest battle). Everything he’s learned was taught by Vulko.

This relationship is only one reason the film definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. For the first 30 minutes, it’s a movie of dudes, but when Mera walks out of the sea, she effectively pushes Aquaman into an almost buddy-movie tone with a feminine twist. Together, Mera and Arthur must go on a journey around the continents to find the mystical spot in the ocean where one of Arthur’s most important battles will occur. 

King Orm is about as superhero-bad-guy as you can possibly write, but for Aquaman, it’s effective. His antagonism is heavy-handed, almost cartoonish — but when you're working with existing characters who originated in the land of comic books, one would expect nothing less. 

The tone of the film remains consistent throughout, which I would define as buddy-comedy/action hero. Superhero tropes galore, the film is a checklist of “what you need to have in a successful origin story” including a past that comes back to haunt our hero, a list of friends he meets along the way, and the dun-dun-dun of the closing credit sequence that assures more Aquaman will be headed our way.

Plot-wise, Aquaman sinks a bit, but not for lack of trying to stay afloat. The problem with the plot is that there are just too many stories to follow. Because of that, details get lost and the second act feels a little draggy as we are pulled around the world. Our A story antagonist (King Orm) tries to take down our hero, yet at the same time, our B story antagonist (Manta) is also trying to take down our hero, while our buddy/love interest (Mera) distracts our hero with her actual fish-out-of-water antics. In the script’s defense, it’s hard to balance an A Story, a B Story and a C Story in 2 different worlds, at the same time, which is what the plot of this film requires. 

Overall, Aquaman is an enjoyable big-budget superhero movie. Though the plot feels a little weak at times, it’s a film you should go see, if nothing else, for the excellent special effects and the fond reminiscence of the beat points — right down to our hero’s name — of the children’s classic, The Sword in the Stone

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