Last weekend I got out to see Aquaman. It was incredibly stupid and absolutely ridiculous in a lot of ways, but I enjoyed it a lot. Certainly, I much prefer over-the-top dumb-fun like this to self-consciously grim garbage like Man of Steel.
Then I happened across this review which I thought was so off-point that I had to write something about it. As usual, original in italics, my response in bold.
No, yes, please, let us continue the tradition of telling stories about men who proudly don’t care about anything thrust into positions of power and authority purely by dint of birthright. I mean, as long as they have some smart, dedicated, noble-minded women around to support them and guide them and show them the way to wise manhood, that’s fine, right? Like, maybe some women who have been working toward whatever lofty goals the man will eventually “achieve” even though he’s just arrived on the scene and, as previously noted, couldn’t give a shit about the things they will now step aside and let him take all the credit for.
Well, we’re off to a great start; a ‘tradition’ that, as far as I can tell, you would have to really look for and stretch things to identify, and which is in any case depends on putting who achieves something over what is achieved. And, really? This is what she gleans from the film? We’ll come back to this.
I certainly cannot see any way in which this recurring cultural narrative could have any negative impact on the world.
Huh. I wonder whether she’d have a similar reaction to the recurring cultural narrative that, say, capitalists are heartless, greedy monsters who only desire to exploit workers for their own gain? Because I’m pretty sure that narrative has had a negative impact on the world. But never mind; pray continue.
So here we have Aquaman, about a fish-man, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa: Justice League, The Bad Batch), who is half human and half Atlantean… as in the ancient underwater realm of Atlantis. He can breathe underwater, see even at depth in the dark ocean, swim superfast, and communicate with the animals of the seas. (For some reason he is also superstrong, because, I dunno, fish are unreasonably brawny?)
This is explained in the film: Atlanteans are much stronger and more durable than normal humans because they’re built to survive under thousands of pounds of oceanic pressure. It’s easy enough to miss, I suppose, but it’s only the first sign that she didn’t really pay much attention to the film.
And his Atlantean half is not just any-old peasant, either: His mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman: The Beguiled, Big Little Lies), was queen of Atlantis, though not a willing one, so she ran away, had a kid with a human man (Temuera Morrison: Moana, Green Lantern), and then got dragged back again. Now, another unwilling queen, Mera (Amber Heard: The Danish Girl, Magic Mike XXL), comes to the human world, the surface world, to bring Arthur back to Atlantis because his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson: The Commuter, The Founder), is up to no good and must be stopped, and apparently only Arthur can stop him, by taking up the throne of Atlantis. Mera can’t stop Orm, even though she seems to be secretly part of a resistance against him. She’s just a girl, after all.
Okay, let’s address this. Mera (who is a princess, by the way, not a queen) cannot stop Orm because he is the legitimate king of Atlantis. She’s Princess of a smaller kingdom, which is ruled by her father, who is in league with Orm. Thus, she really has no way of stopping him; she can’t depose both him and her own father, and if she tried the people would revolt against her. The plan, therefore, is to bring in Arthur, who, being first born, actually has a better claim to the throne than Orm. However, since he’s an outsider and half-human, the only way the people will accept him is if he brings a very clear symbol of his right to rule in the form of the lost trident.
It’s a little convoluted, and I’m not sure if it all holds together, but it’s all there. They’re doing what actually would be done in a real monarchy if the King were out of control: finding an alternative claimant and convincing the populace that he has a better right to the throne. This isn’t Black Panther where an obviously psychotic outsider can just show up, take the crown, and the entire country instantly gets behind him: the characters have to take things like legitimacy, local customs, and the will of the people into account (yes, Aquaman is a smarter film than Black Panther, and yes, I do like picking on that film).
Here is another recurring cultural narrative that by all means must endure, and that surely isn’t doing any damage whatsoever:
Okay, what is your definition of ‘damage’? Do you want to cite anything objective here, any actual incidences of real harm being done to real people by the things you’re complaining about? Put up, or actually tell me something about the darn film rather than your socio-political paranoia.
science fiction and fantasy stories — of which Aquaman is arguably a bit of both — told by men — the screenwriters here are director James Wan and three other guys —
Wow, nice little gratuitous bit of misandry there.
that feature wildly inventive alternate worlds full of magic and wonder and all manner of fanciful places and creatures… and is just as f***ing sexist as the real world.
And what, specifically, in this film was ‘sexist’ by her definition? I mean, I can see her thinking that the fact that Atlantis has arranged marriages, at least among royalty, is sexist (though Mera actually points out to Arthur that there are reasons for it), but what else? Mera’s a tough, capable heroine, very powerful, and saves Arthur’s life more than once, as well as being generally smarter and more on the ball than he is. Heck, I thought they went too far in that regard and would have preferred if she’d needed to be rescued at least once, just to balance things out a bit.
The limits to the imagination at play here are shocking but tediously predictable. God forbid we should enrage the fanboys who would howl should any hint of social-justice warfare edge into their fish-man-who-would-be-king story.
Okay, let’s deal with this. First, the only limits to the imagination I see here are her attacking a film for daring to show a culture that doesn’t work like modern upper-class America. That’s if her complaints mean anything at all beyond that she just didn’t watch the film very closely. The movie being willing to present a monarchical society, complete with arranged marriages and clear distinctions between high and low-born shows a refreshing freedom of imagination: a willingness to not be restrained too much by the rigid standards of the present culture. Nor do I think any reasonable person would look at this film, with its fantastic monsters, characters, and environments, and conclude “lack of imagination” simply because it doesn’t regurgitate the same tired political talking points you can find literally everywhere these days.
Yes, ‘social justice warfare’ does not belong in an ‘Aquaman’ film; it does not represent a lack of imagination, but awareness on the part of the filmmakers of what their job is. People do not like be lectured when they go to see a fantasy film: they don’t want to see their favorite hero turned into yet-another mouthpiece for telling them why they should be ashamed of themselves for existing. Again, they can get that literally anywhere else anytime they want it; it does not belong in a superhero movie.
Which, they may all rest assured, has not happened at all. Unless there is something objectionable in the non-blond-Aryan Momoa — who is partly of Native Hawaiian and Native American descent — in the lead role? (*Googles* Yup, some people think so.)
Why the heck did she bring this up?
Yes, when you cast someone who looks completely different from the original character, some people are not going to like it. I’m sure you could find some people who even were legitimately racist in their reaction to it (it’s the internet; you can find anything). But why mention it, especially in context of the surrounding points? The best I can tell is that she means it as an insult to those she so contemptuously describes as ‘fan boys,’ implying they are racists as well as sexists and generally insufficiently woke.
But here’s the thing; the ‘fan boys’ obviously liked the film, since any doubts about Mr. Momoa in the role clearly haven’t hurt the box office or prevented the film from making a billion dollars.
Look at what she is doing: she complains that the film is politically regressive, and that those who like the film hate social justice, then to support that she cites fans who had a problem with Jason Momoa’s casting. But that would be a reason for people not to like the film. She is equating two separate groups: those who liked the film and consequently were okay with its ‘sexist’ politics, and those who didn’t like it based on the choice of Mr. Momoa in the title role.
This is one of the main reasons I wanted to do this fisk, because this is quite frankly disgusting; she’s gratuitously attacking a huge number of people (those who liked the film) for no reason by snidely linking them to views they very obviously do no hold.
Indeed, even Aquaman’s nominally pro-environmental angle doesn’t dare to say anything even slightly radical. The badness of King Orm is all about how he wants to lead a war against the surface world because we’ve been dumping all our garbage in his ocean since forever, and just generally doing our best to destroy the planet, and it’s pretty difficult to fault him for this.
Wait, she thinks a world war and mass-murder is an acceptable punishment for pollution?
But Arthur, straddling the two worlds as he does, can prevent this, apparently… and so Aquaman ends up reassuring us polluting humans that we don’t have to change our ways and clean up our act — literally or figuratively — because the half-human guy will make it all better and save us from suffering any consequences for our crimes.
Arthur’s role is to be a mediator, with the point that both sides have a mistaken view of the other (as explicitly shown in Mera’s rant against the surface world: even heroic Atlanteans are prejudiced and dismissive of the surface), but he is able to see things from both points of view. And ‘crime’ is a bit of a stretch for pollution, don’t you think? Obviously she doesn’t.
There is no suspense in anything here, and so no real sense of triumph even when we’re meant to be cheering. It barely even registers when Arthur morphs every so slightly from a guy who might engage in some light maritime rescuing, even though it means missing happy hour, to a guy who is no longer scoffing at the “fairy tales” that indicate he is the rightful ruler of Atlantis. (He has to find a legendary trident and publicly wield it. Not pull a sword from a stone and publicly wield it. Totally different thing. King of the who?)
They explicitly made that connection in the film. It’s very obviously intentional. That’s not a criticism.
Of course some of what he has to do involves dick-measuring hand-to-hand combat with his half brother, or with other manly obstacles, and for a guy who thinks with his muscles, that’s just fun.
More misandric comments, and it’s an action film with a male lead; what does she expect? This isn’t a criticism, this is just smugness.
He’s not particularly challenged by anything that happens to him. He doesn’t struggle. As long as Arthur gets to keep being the same old pretty but colorless meathead (spoiler: he does), it makes no difference to him.
No, he has a huge moment of crisis when he realizes that he’s endangered the people he cares about because he made a bad decision earlier in the film. It’s not brilliantly done, but it’s not nothing. Again, I get the impression she didn’t really watch the film.
Arthur’s actually a pretty decently developed character; he acts like a meathead most of the time, but underneath is shown to be pretty intelligent and feels strongly for the people in his life, but he runs from this side of him because he doesn’t want anything to do with Atlantis, since they killed his mother just for having him. His coming to terms with this and becoming a king capable of mercy and moderation comprises his development. All this is established in the film. Again, it’s not perfectly done, but it’s not nothing.
What else is there? A lot of imagery of the high-tech underwater realms, especially the city of Atlantis, that seems inspired by 80s mall-store black-light posters. (Hello, Spencer Gifts!) Jarring detours down an Indiana Jones/Dan Brown tangent, then another into a Lost Continent realm. (This movie is trying to be a lot of movies all at once, and it doesn’t work.) Undersea action sequences — big battles, chases — in which director Wan (The Conjuring 2, Insidious) offers us no sense of geography or space, no sense of who most of the characters involved are, and so they just mush together into a lot of noise and psychedelic chaos.
And here we finally get a legitimate criticism; the big battle scene at the end is pretty hard to follow, except that a lot of stuff is going on and a lot of people are getting killed, but where our characters are is kind of lost in the shuffle.
The sudden shifts to Indiana Jones and the Lost Continent are a little strange, and you could cite them as a problem, though I enjoyed them, personally; I thought it was tonally consistent with the madcap fantasy world of Atlantis, as set early on in the film.
I don’t know why she’s complaining about the look of Atlantis: just likening it to ‘black light poster’ doesn’t tell me anything. Is it inconsistent with what Atlantis is supposed to be? Aesthetically ugly? Thematically inappropriate? I thought it was fine; reminiscent of both Ancient Greek architecture and bioluminescence, with a high-tech sheen. Pretty much perfectly fitting for Atlantis. Is it the best possible Atlantis? No, but I don’t think the visuals can be legitimately cited as a criticism; the film looks great. There are a lot of very impressive, very creatively filmed scenes. You could argue the CG is a bit much, but that’s about it.
This is part of the problem: even when she cites legitimate flaws, she doesn’t seem to be giving the film an honest hearing; she’s just citing everything as a flaw, apparently because she didn’t like the politics. This ‘review’ doesn’t seem like an attempt to say what works and doesn’t work in the film, but to vent her spleen on something she took offense at.
There’s a human villain trying to kill Arthur, but when Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Boundaries, Baywatch) — who is hellbent to get revenge on “the Aquaman” for a thing Arthur did — has a chance to shoot Arthur, literally has Arthur in his sights, he fails to do so. (It’s much worse than the typical movie trope of the bad guy who fails to take the opportunity to kill the good guy: there’s no feint toward giving Manta a reason to hesitate. He’s not even monologuing at the time!)
I don’t know what specific moment she’s talking about here, but I distinctly remember Black Manta nailing Arthur with his lasers at least once, not to mention stabbing and slicing him several times. So, maybe this is a legit criticism, but…I wouldn’t bet on it.
When Aquaman isn’t an incoherent mess, it’s little more than Jason Momoa standing around smirking or Amber Heard shifting instantly from disgust of Arthur to adoration of him. Which is barely any better.
Aquaman is not a great film; I don’t think I’d even call it a good one. It’s got a large number of plot holes, questionable moments, laughable mistakes, and it goes on for probably about a half-hour too long. This ‘review,’ on the other hand, is a single paragraph of substandard film criticism stuck onto the end of a nonsensical rant about progressive politics.
There are a lot of positives in the film: Arthur’s character and Mr. Momoa’s performance, Black Manta, Arthur’s relationship with his father, the visuals and creativity, the fact that Orm is allowed to have an honest and human reason for hating Arthur (he blames him for their mother’s death), Mera overcoming her prejudice of the surface world, the camerawork, all of these things are honestly well-done. She doesn’t mention any of them.
There are a lot of other things that could be argued one way or another, and likewise a lot of flaws: the question of why Orm needs to hire Black Manta to go after Arthur, and how he’s able to tinker with ultra-advance Atlantean tech to build his helmet (and why they allow him to do so), the fact that the arena battle is almost completely unnecessary to the story, the question of how Arthur and Mera hiked out of the desert, Manta’s father firing a grenade-launcher inside a submarine with no repercussions until he hits a torpedo, the cringeworthy inspirational speeches, and so on. But she doesn’t mention any of these either.
Again, this isn’t a review, it’s a rant: she doesn’t like that the film doesn’t go out of its way to promote her favored politics, so nothing it does is right, and she sprinkles it with gratuitous insults towards the filmmakers and fans.
Chesterton said that a good book tells us the truth of its characters, while a bad one tells us the truth of its author. I think that goes double for reviews.
2 thoughts on “An Aqua-Fisk”
Wow, two fantastic review fisks in two months. I really need to write a post on how to (not) critique a story. The first rule of which should be: “And for gosh sakes, watch your language!” 😉
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Thanks! I second the motion for that post.
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