I do not lightly say that Aquaman is a Homeric epic, a paragon of Pulp Fiction storytelling, a complete hero’s journey. It would be so simple to call it another superhero movie following the established procedures set by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, or Fox’s X-Men universe. Instead, what is presented is a story told often in comic books, The Pulp Fiction swordsman of Camelot. It follows in the footsteps of The Mummy, Indiana Jones, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Errol Flynn and all the dashing swordsmen who graced the comic book pages of the early 1920s and 30s.
In many ways, the story structure is dictated because of the themes of the movie: the nature of power, worthiness, bloodlines, and innate goodness, the divine right of kings and duty to one’s heart or one’s people. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) must be a reluctant hero in the vein of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus while shouldering the winking smirk of a pulp hero in a story about legends.
James Wan has managed to take the fingerprints of an ancient empire and imprint those on Atlantis as the Roman Empire was on medieval culture. The story that arises is of Camelot, complete with a character named Arthur and the quest to retrieve a magical artifact that will bring forth the one true king. The story is instantly familiar, down to the moment where the hero is dragged to the depths in order to find a guide who will lead them to their ultimate goal. What this film succeeds in, is the execution; updating the Pulp Aesthetics to the Modern Age. This is a film that is a comic book, where one could make panels from shots like in DM of the Rings or Darth’s and Droids. Aquaman makes the visual transition from printed pages to Silver Screen better than any superhero movie has managed to do.
However, as amazing every actor is in each role they play, it’s clear the A-list cast is there to be able to give exposition in the best possible manner. The character of Mera (Amber Heard) is part walking plot device, exposition font, and magic romantic interest. The emotional truth and developed characters of Wonder Woman are unfortunately not present in this.
Instead, we’re shown a world of high ideals and themes, questioning the notion of differences and who deserves mercy, revenge and the lengths we will go to take it; about how hatred and prejudice lead to unnecessary bloodshed. It’s scale and spectacle paying homage to the heroes who have come before, taking lessons from science fiction and fantasy movies and demonstrating how special effects have evolved since Danny Kaye crossed swords with Basil Rathbone in The Court Jester. It is a movie so Pulp Fiction, they put a copy of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror in it.
It is a pity, the storytelling does not go beyond its roots. The movie ends with a return to the status quo, of course with the hero changed from the adventure, but it fails to answer the villain’s primary question and goal. We are told Arthur Curry must take his rightful place as king of Atlantis or his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) and the United Quorum of Kingdoms will go to war against the surface world. We are never given a reason why Orm wants to do so, besides Humanity’s pollution of the ocean and fishing species to near extinction. This reason is treated as a smokescreen of fake intent as if the villain does not really care about the things they state matter to them and guide their actions. Even when literally held up as our avatar under trial for what the surface does to those below, Aquaman finds itself without anything meaningful to say.
Aquaman fails in that when confronted with the villain’s argument and the villain is right, the hero chooses to ignore it instead of taking it into consideration and addressing their concern.
But that’s okay. Pulp Fiction Heroes don’t need to be mirrors of the human experience. Aquaman is incredibly entertaining, visually impressive and honestly snarky. I enjoyed it immensely and I look forward to the next installment.