The DC Extended Universe has been collapsing ever since it began. It kicked off with “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, signifying the two types of movies that would follow: middling mediocrities and garbage fires. For years, “Wonder Woman” stood as the franchise’s only success, thanks to the focused feminism that director Patty Jenkins brought to the table. Upon discovering that great directors make great movies, DC hired James Wan—the horror master behind “The Conjuring”—to helm “Aquaman”, and expectations are… all over the place.
What are we supposed to expect? James Wan is a capable director, but Aquaman is a silly superhero. DC is obviously taking the character in a different direction by casting the hyper-masculine Jason Momoa, but would his own movie work? The DCEU has rocketed between bleak self-seriousness, zany cynicism, and Marvel rip-off: what else is there to try? Apparently, there’s everything—everything all at once.
That’s no exaggeration. “Aquaman” is so many movies in one that it broke my brain. I haven’t the slightest idea where to start with this weird chimera, largely because DC covered every base by never committing to one tone. Sometimes the movie tries to be a serious drama, which doesn’t work because there are mermaids riding sharks shooting lasers, and it’s practically impossible to take that seriously. Other times, it leans into the ridiculousness of it all, but its jokes are so broad and badly written that they fall flat. So “Aquaman” is an inconsistent failure, right?
Not so fast: tonal inconsistency works to the movie’s benefit too. It’s littered with moments that are unintentionally hilarious. James Wan’s direction is vivid, colorful, grandiose, and epic in scope — but when visual style this impressive is applied to a plot this mind-numbingly dumb, the movie somehow becomes more laughable. Imagine if “The Room” boasted incredible cinematography: wouldn’t the dissonance be just as funny, in a different way? It makes sense when a bad movie looks bad — “Aquaman” is like an HD remake of the superhero movie that least deserved one, a turd coated in the finest gold. That’s the kind of thing that becomes a midnight movie.
It’s a mystery whether this was intentional on DC’s part. At one point, Aquaman and his Atlantean partner are flying to the Sahara desert, and the accompanying song is a club remix of Toto’s “Africa”—by Pitbull—and one can only conclude that DC gave up and aimed for stupidity. But then there are passionate (and lazily written) speeches about family, responsibility, and power, and it starts to feel like DC just failed at making a good movie. It’s flabbergasting. It seems nearly self-aware, but then there’s dialogue like the goodbyes between an Atlantean and her human husband: “Where I come from, the sea carries away our tears” / “Not here. Here, we feel them.” Who in the world would write that on purpose?
The screenplay is the biggest clue that DC still doesn’t know what they’re doing. “Aquaman” plays like the bizarre lovechild of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Batman & Robin”: it’s bombastic and over-indulgent; it’s corny and embarrassing. Aquaman himself barely has a character arc — he changes from reluctant, quipping hero to slightly less reluctant, quipping hero. There’s a romance that’s completely unearned. Every other decision is inadvisable. And yet, it’s always entertaining. “Aquaman” flounders so wildly that it reaches “so bad it’s good” nirvana.
It’s almost as if the movie was made to be made fun of. It’s not good, but at least it’s lunacy. And so, I find myself giving a strange recommendation for an objectively bad movie: go see it. There’s no other way you’ll believe it.