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James Wan Takes Viewers To An Ocean Far Away In ‘Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom’

Aquaman
Image CreditONE Media/YouTube

Aquaman is routinely mocked in nerd culture as the fish guy, but Wan’s take on the hero works because he fully embraces the universe.

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For a movie about a guy who talks with fish, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” accomplishes a lot. It’s proven there’s nothing director James Wan can’t do and it’s a breath of fresh air in these dark days for the superhero genre. This movie is just more evidence that the best practice moving forward for superhero films should be to rely on good filmmakers and deal with one project at a time. In other words, to go back to the days before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) turned everything into one massive IP vortex.

The first Aquaman film came out a half-decade ago and surprised everyone by becoming one of the biggest superhero films ever, grossing over a billion dollars. It proved DC’s characters weren’t to blame for lackluster film adaptations but rather the people behind the movies. Enter James Wan. Wan had already started two massively successful horror franchises with “The Conjuring” and “Insidious.” But more importantly, he had made what most people think is still the best “Fast and Furious” movie, number 7. That’s the one where Paul Walker died during filming. Instead of allowing that to tank the film, Wan honored Walker’s life by using it in a tear-jerking finale. Wan was the perfect man for the job of bringing Aquaman to the screen and he delivered big.

Among the DC superheroes, Aquaman is routinely mocked in nerd culture as the fish guy. But Wan was a fan and he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the property. What makes Wan’s take on Aquaman work is that he fully embraces the universe. He isn’t embarrassed by the silliness, rather he loves the things that define the character. And the stories he tells with Aquaman are stories about an undersea world and how it intersects with ours, he doesn’t try to shoehorn Aquaman into our world but rather takes us to his.

This is what makes adaptations of DC’s core trio (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) so fraught with awkwardness. Those characters are placed in our world, where they don’t really belong. But James Wan’s Aquaman movies have more in common with the “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Star Wars.” The ocean is treated as a distinct universe with numerous alien species and separate political entities.

An Aquaman story should take the viewer to an ocean far far away, and that’s what this latest one does in spades. The “Star Wars” influences are worn flamboyantly not hidden, there’s an overt reference to Jabba the Hutt via a fat fish mob boss hilariously played by Martin Short.

The first Aquaman film was a grand adventure into a new universe that the mainstream had never really seen before. And because Wan had done it so successfully, when Marvel finally got around to making their film featuring a fish guy in “Wakanda Forever” their hands were tied. Their take on Namor (who is also the king of the undersea city of Atlantis) couldn’t be about an elaborate undersea world without looking like a blatant ripoff. So they engaged in some anti-colonial wokery and made him an anti-hero for the Wakandans to fight. Wan had simultaneously armed Warner Bros with a formidable new franchise and disarmed Disney.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” delivers in all the same ways that the first film did and breaks the cycle of bad DC sequels that had become the norm. Wan thankfully didn’t kill off Aquaman’s great villain Black Manta and brought him back for a much grander villainous scheme. The drawn battle lines between good and evil are refreshing because of how unoriginal they are, again like “Star Wars,” the good guys are clearly good and the bad guys clearly bad. Their motivations are simple and clear, there’s no hint of anti-heroism or irony. It’s just an old fashioned adventure story.

Wan realizes this mostly CGI world in a way that feels much more authentic than recent big-budget CGI fests. It’s not always clear when something is practical vs. computer which creates a more seamless and enjoyable experience. It’s a beautiful film full of color and life.

Sadly, this is officially the end of this run of DC movies only because Aquaman has worked so well. That this is the swan song is both frustrating and appropriate. Thankfully DC’s failed attempt to chase the MCU is finally over. Hopefully, Aquaman is able to swim away from this rotting corpse and have a life of its own.


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