The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Michael O’Sullivan’s review of “Aquaman," click here.
Now, “Aquaman,” what did we learn from the other Justice League movies?
Not much, unfortunately.
This iteration of Aquaman (Jason Momoa) made his first big splash (hee) in 2017’s “Justice League,” when he brought a little lightness and sass to what was often Bruce Wayne’s House of Brooding. Now we get his backstory. And the backstory of Atlantis. And the backstory of the villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). And various thirsts for revenge. And a giant sea monster voiced by Julie Andrews. In short, we get a LOT.
Let’s take the shortest route possible: Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a member of the Atlantean royal family, washes up on the shore of Maine after fleeing an arranged, underwater marriage. A lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) rescues her. After she eats his goldfish (not a metaphor), he makes her tea (also not a metaphor) and the two fall in love. In a leap forward in inter-species breeding, they spawn Arthur, played by the cutest baby in cinematic history. A few years later, when Arthur is still very cute, Atlanna is tracked down, captured and forced to return to Atlantis. Arthur grows up knowing about his Atlantean heritage, is trained in its ways by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), and eventually becomes a man with a fondness for tribal-style ink and an aversion to shirts. Much plot happens, but in the end it comes down to Arthur — who eventually takes the even nerdier name of Aquaman —having to fight his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson), a blonder and blander version of Loki who wishes to attack the surface people (us) as revenge for every time we chose plastic over paper.
That covers about a third of the plot. Superheroes can carry a lot on their muscled backs, but an overladen story isn’t one of them.
“Aquaman” is an amalgamation of everything the DC Universe movies get wrong. With the exception of “Wonder Woman,” the DCU seems insistent on making every movie an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of every possible thing that can happen to a hero, whether it tastes good or not. Superhero movies shouldn’t be simplistic, but they should be simple.
The idea of a superhero is an easy one: Here is a person (or alien or whatever) whose experience is a concentrated, elevated example of our own. When we have experienced grief, we want to alleviate that grief for others: Batman. When we have been rescued, we want to rescue others: Superman. When men we don’t know call us “sweetie,” we want to tie them up and punch them: Wonder Woman.
It would have been hard for “Aquaman” to take a page out of “Wonder Woman’s” notebook; it started shooting the week of “Wonder Woman’s” premiere, and these movies can’t turn on a dime. Still, I held out hope that those behind “Aquaman” would find that a huge reason “Wonder Woman” worked was because it was 20 minutes of backstory, one quest, one villain, one victory that comes at a cost. Instead, they stuck with the strategy of overwhelming complexity, which has sunk every other DCU movie. Yes, there are a lot of fish in the sea. We don’t have to try to catch all of them.