Aquaman (2018): A Brief Discussion
I have said this before, but it bears repeating: I do not usually review films that I know will be or have been mass-reviewed, unless I think I can say something new, which I will attempt to do now.
The first thing to say is that I very much enjoyed Aquaman. It is a fun ride, a wild romp, as it were. But I have to admit that the story structure is not as tight as one would have liked.
What I'm trying to say is that there was a bit of a let down at the script level.
There is a You Tuber, whose channel is called The word of the wolf, who gives an excellent breakdown concerning exactly what is wrong the story. The video is simply called "Aquaman is Awful."
I am not going to be anywhere near as extensive in my critique. In fact, this little essay is not even a "review," per se. What I want to do, here, is focus on three elements: The Black Manta, Aquaman's mutant powers, and the goal of the Atlantean villain.
I want to use those specific areas to critique the film; and then, staying with these elements, suggest how a more interesting, logically sound film could have been made.
Aquaman's Powers I.
We know, from the film, that Arthur Curry is the son of a human lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean queen.
As such, he, presumably, has the genetic and biological characteristics of both humans and Atlanteans.
What is much less clear, from the film, is that he is a "mutant," with powers and abilities virtually unknown among both humans and Atlanteans. These powers include superhuman strength, speed, durability, and marine telepathy. And, of course, anyone familiar with the source material, or commentaries on it from the Internet, knows that his powers are augmented considerably underwater.
Now, this distinction is not made very clear in the film itself.
Here's what I mean.
I can accept the idea that Atlanteans are probably considerably stronger and perhaps more durable than humans ---- because they live in a considerably more pressurized environment, thousands of "leagues" below the sea, and all that --- in the same way that we know Vulcans are much stronger than humans because they live on a planet of much heavier gravity than Earth.
However, the source material tells us that Arthur's physical capabilities, nevertheless, rise several orders of magnitude above that of a typical Atlantean. The film itself does suggest this. We do see him singlehandedly lift a submarine to the surface; and there is never any hint that any other Atlantean is capable of anything like that.
My question, then, is this: How is it that Aquaman was defeated in a duel (underwater, where his powers only increase) against the reigning, non-mutant Atlantean king?
You see, Aquaman is to this admittedly highly skilled warrior, what Batman is to Superman. One, however skilled and determined is still... a man. The other is, well,.. Super!
What I'm trying to say is that Aquaman is a Super Atlantean. The king he lost to, the first time, is just a... regular Atlantean.
The question, put another way, is: Why wasn't Aquaman able to simply overwhelm the Atlantean king with his exponentially superior strength, power, speed, and durability --- the same way that Superman would do to Batman in a real fight, as opposed to the rigged WWE result we got in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice?
Aquaman's Powers II./The Black Manta
How could Aquaman's Super Atlantean status have been made clear to film viewers, unfamiliar with the source material?
The first stumbling block, of course, is that the idea of the "mutant" is really a Marvel thing, not a DC thing.
An explanation could have been contrived: Suppose that Arthur's father had been in the Army. Suppose he had been exposed to some kind of DC-equivalent to Marvel's "Super Soldier Serum," --- without any effect on himself, but apparently passed on to his offspring, his only child, the son Arthur, enabling him to become the Aquaman.
Question: How could this explanation have been delivered by the movie?
Answer: By way of a much more substantial development of the villain Black Manta.
Let's talk about Black Manta.
The simple fact is that Black Manta is not represented well in this movie. You would never know it from this film, but Black Manta is Aquaman's principal nemesis in the comic books. BM even managed to cut off Arthur's hand --- a hand he had to get replaced by a magic, hard water hand.
In this film, we all saw Aquaman simply beat BM like a little sissy.
Now, recall the submarine scene, when BM and his father invaded a Russian submarine and massacred the crew, apparently for no reason.
Was it to lure Aquaman there, so that they could confront him?
Anyway, Aquaman comes and he and BM get into a bit of a tussle. Manta huffs and puffs about how he was sure that he and Arthur would have to meet one day.
Okay, great! Then why didn't BM do anything to prepare, so that he could have at least put on a far more competitive effort to destroy Aquaman, than the laughably inept attempt that he put forth?
But that wasn't the worst of it.
You want to know what was the worst of it?
The Worst of It
You see, I hate it when a movie villain is not, what I call, "true to the game."
There came a point in the tussle, when a bulk part of the ship fell on Black Manta's father.
And you know what happened next?
Black Manta, this super bad dude, this stone cold hombre, who had massacred the crew of the submarine as if they had been insects, turns soft, sissified, and suddenly vulnerable, and full of human feelings.
Aquaman, please save my daddy!
Utterly pathetic! I wanted to vomit.
Here's what should have happened, if Black Manta had been written "true to the game."
Manta should have taken out a gun and shot his own father in the head, killing him instantly in order to give him a quick, honorable death, and to spare him the possible embarrassment of begging for his life from Aquaman.
Those of you who saw the film The Usual Suspects (1995), may recall the scene in which arch-criminal Keyzer Soze, squared up against rival drug dealers; and how we saw who was for real and who had been playing at being gangsters. We learned what it meant for a villain to be true to the game.
The question is this: How could the explanation for Aquaman's mutant Super Atlantean status have been delivered to the audience?
As I mentioned, it could have been delivered by way of the PROPER development of the Black Manta as a villain. We should have been drawn into his obsessive, single-minded, relentless drive to make himself powerful enough to defeat Aquaman.
Black Manta should have been developed as a kind of evil Batman. We should have been shown training montages in which BM gets training in various martial arts and empty-handed fighting systems, as well as weapons of all kinds (guns and traditional martial arts implements). We should have been shown montages of Manta training himself into peak human condition. We should have been shown montages of BM training his mind to peak human efficiency (chemistry, psychology, criminology, tactics and strategy, engineering, etc.).
We should have been shown montages of BM developing and acquiring state-of-the-art body armor, gear, vehicles, and weapons.
In other words: Evil Batman. BM could have been given a backstory similar to Bruce Wayne's. Let's say that Manta's wealthy parents were gunned down in the street.
But instead of deciding to fight the criminal forces that struck down his parents, like Bruce Wayne did, Black Manta comes to a very different conclusion. Black Manta's take away is that there are just two kinds of people in the world: prey and predators.
Black Manta decided that he would be one of the latter.
We could have been shown montages of Manta in consultation with scientists, reviewing clips of Aquaman in action. We could have been showing them pulling up the military records of Arthur's father, on a computer screen, with the explanation that he had been exposed to a "Super Soldier Serum," strangely enough, without any apparent results ---- except that Arthur, his son, somehow, reaped the benefits.
We could have been shown montages of gear being developed that can do something against Aquaman's superhuman durability.
Then we could have been shown Black Manta calling out Aquaman, challenging him to a duel to the death. Then we could have had a terrific battle between Black Manta and Aquaman, which resulted in the Super Atlantean's hand being cut off.
Taking a Page from Black Panther
I want to say a final word about the firs underwater fight between Aquaman and the reigning king of Atlantis, the "Ocean Master," Orm Marius.
Before seeing this film, I thought to myself that Aquaman needed to basically be Black Panther underwater to be commercially successful. I came out of the film thinking that it had achieved precisely that.
However, I now think that Aquaman was not enough like Black Panther, to be as logically coherent as it could have been.
What do I mean by that?
There are two things that make the Aquaman film, as an origin story, problematic:
- Aquaman's mutant Super Atlantean status
- (combined with) the right-to-rule-by-combat tradition of Atlantean civilization
Arthur's powers give him a virtually unbeatable, unfair advantage over other Atlanteans. In his first fight (underwater where Arthur's considerable powers increase) against Orm Marius, Aquaman should have taken his opponent's trident away from him and wrapped it around his neck.
The reason he didn't was because of simple plot manipulation.
For this reason, the movie actually needed to start with Arthur as already King of Atlantis (or at least one of its kings).
In the Black Panther film, we are given to understand that T'Challa, the king of Wakanda, had superhuman attributes as the result of ingesting a certain herb, along with the blessing of the panther goddess.
Black Panther also featured right-to-rule-by-combat. But T'Challa was given a potion to take away his superhuman attributes, temporarily, in order to make a fair fight between himself and whoever would claim the throne.
Finally, I think this movie could have done something interesting with class.
The movie tells us that of the Atlanteans, only the so-called "high-born" (the noble/royal class) can breath both water and air.
The movie should have taken a page from ancient Sparta, and set up Atlantis with two kings: Aquaman and Orm Marius.
Suggested sequence of events to that would have made Aquaman a more logical coherent and interesting film.
- The whole thought-mother-was-destroyed-in-treacherous-environment-but-really-survived thing, blah, blah, blah... should have been ditched. It's too derivative of Ant-Man and The Wasp anyway.
- Aquaman, because of his super powers, goes off to help the Super Friends fight Steppenwolf. This would be referred to in this movie.
- He then faces down against The Black Manta, in a terrific struggle that, as I said before, results in BM severing Arthur's hand.
- Aquaman wins the fight anyway, then goes back to Atlantis to recover and get his new magical, hardwater hand.
- When he returns, he finds the second king, Orm Marius, working on an interesting plot, somewhat out of the norm for a typical action movie villain. At some point, while the other king Aquaman was away, Orm stood before his people and said something like this:
"People of Atlantis. This world, all of it, belongs to all of you. It is our birthright. It is our destiny to once again claim the surface as well as the deep, the land as well as the sea. I want you to know, Atlanteans great and small, that I will not rest until all our people can breath air as well as water --- not just the nobility.
- You see, the "villain" is working on a serum or treatment that will enable all Atlanteans to breath both air and water. And it might be fun for the movie to investigate just why it is that only "high-born" Atlanteans can breath air as well as water.
- Suppose, in one confrontation, Aquaman said something to Orm Marius, like this:
Aquaman: This is madness, Orm Marius! What? Do you intend to invade the surface? Destroy everyone, everything?
Orm Marius: Not destroy, reshape.
Aquaman: You would annihilate and enslave billions of people?
Orm Marius: Not annihilate and enslave --- conquer and command. You see, my dear Arthur, I only intend to place them under my... our... leadership. In order for that to happen, the surface-dwellers must be able to go where I tell them to go and do what I tell them to do. And that means...
Aquaman: That means...?
Orm Marius: That means, my dear Arthur, that the surface-dwellers must be able to breath water as easily as they can breath air.
Orm Marius: The ultimate sanity!
Aquaman: I will not allow it!
Orm Marius: Join me!
Orm Marius: It is inevitable.
And so on and so forth.
Then Aquaman should team up with his nemesis, Black Manta, in order to stop this plan somehow.
After that, we come to an interesting use of Aquaman's telepathic abilities. Now, we know from the source material and/or commentaries on it online, that not only can Aquaman telepathically communicate with all marine life, but with any life that has evolved from marine life. And, according to Danco, he has even engaged in telepathic communication with Martian Manhunter.
Now then, I understand that, as of the "new 52," there has been something of a downgrade to Aquaman's telepathic abilities.
However, my suggestion for this movie, would be to ignore the downgrade.
The movie should end with Aquaman, teamed up with some other DC telepath(s) and some kind of machinery --- a kind of "Cerebro," if you will --- to wipe the memory of Orm Marius's scheme from the mind of every single Atlantean; in addition to outright psychically lobotomizing Orm Marius and his key advisors --- as an alternative to imprisonment.
There's more I could say, of course, but I shan't. This has gone on long enough!
Thank you so much for reading!