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‘Aquaman’ and the Downside to Goofy Superhero Movies

Plus some other random thoughts about the latest DC Comics movie

My friend and fellow film critic Katie Walsh had a blast watching Aquaman. I know because I was sitting right next to her as she was laughing gleefully as the latest utterly nutty thing occurred during the deeply dopey movie. Here’s a sample of some of her most delighted moments:

Aquaman, which stars Jason Momoa as the titular DC superhero, is indeed a movie full of batshit-crazy moments, and if you go into the film understanding that it’s totally ridiculous, you’ll probably like it just fine. But tried as I did to hook into Aquaman’s so-goofy-it’s-great vibe, I found myself distanced by the whole experience. It’s not that I don’t get that it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek — a reaction, of sorts, to the flagrantly somber tenor of so many comic-book films. But its campiness rarely translated into a satisfying movie experience. I wonder if it’s partly because there’s something about superhero movies that resists such gonzo goofiness. It’s okay for these films to be funny — but dopey is another matter.

The film — which takes place after the events of Justice League (don’t worry, I don’t remember anything about that movie, either) — finds Arthur Curry (Momoa) grappling with his half-human/half-fish existence while on the search for a magic trident. (If he finds it, he’ll become King of Atlantis. Or something.) In this quest, he’s joined by Mera (Amber Heard), whose skin-tight green outfit splits the difference between “sexy” and “kinda unpractical.” If it wasn’t clear already, Aquaman is a cavalcade of camp, the movie’s fate-of-Atlantis stakes squaring off with the story’s this-whole-thing-is-pretty-silly tone. As Walsh points out, Dolph Lundgren — Dolph Lundgren — plays the ruler of another ocean kingdom, and he does indeed ride a seahorse at one point. Director James Wan definitely doesn’t want us to take any of this too seriously.

It’s funny when movies adopt this attitude. Tentpoles like Aquaman cost a couple hundred million dollars to make, and then a lot of additional dough to promote. They’re massive investments overseen by conglomerates that want to ensure a sizable return on investment. Jobs are on the line, as well as the future of multi-picture franchises. That is a lot of pressure. So, in a way, it’s gutsy for Aquaman to be jokey, essentially telling the audience that the filmmakers don’t feel burdened by expectations and are willing to laugh at the whole Blockbuster-Industrial Complex.

I can sympathize with this sentiment. After suffering through the miserable Justice League, which dripped with furrowed-brow self-importance, it’s a relief to have a film that taps into the innocent, nerdy fun of comic books. Ever since Christopher Nolan revolutionized the genre by imbuing Batman — who, a generation earlier, had been associated with the ultra-campy Adam West television show — with genuine emotions and thematic depth, Hollywood has tried to copy his formula, inflating its superhero films with portentous significance. (Along the way, studios also unwittingly validated comic-book fans’ belief that the objects of their affection were as artistically worthy as more respected forms of literature, like novels.) I love Batman Begins and The Dark Knight as much as anyone, but the meager tonal knockoffs that arose in their wake proved exhausting.

Aquaman isn’t the first time Hollywood (or Warner Bros.) has tried to counterbalance the genre’s brooding ponderousness. In retrospect, 2011’s Green Lantern was a well-timed, lighthearted response to Nolan’s Batman films, casting Ryan Reynolds as a smirky regular guy who can’t believe he’s a superhero. Where other costumed characters fretted over the responsibility of being crime-fighters, Hal Jordan was a smart-ass trying to do his best. There was just one problem with Green Lantern: It was terrible and unfunny, not to mention a cautionary tale about what happens when filmmakers try to craft goofy superhero movies, setting back the cause by years.

It’s not as if all superhero films are gray dirges. Lots of Marvel movies have laughs, particularly Ant-Man and the Wasp and Thor: Ragnarok. (For purposes of this conversation, I’m gonna leave out Deadpool, whose snide R-rated naughtiness is on a different plane than its superhero cohorts.) In fact, Ragnarok might be the perfect model for how to make a goofy comic-book movie. The Thor sequel openly mocked Marvel conventions and then cast Jeff Goldblum to be extra Goldblum-y in order to drive home the silliness. That film, directed by comedic filmmaker Taika Waititi, even put Cate Blanchett in a fabulously villainous outfit and dared to trim Chris Hemsworth’s magnificent locks. But the whole thing worked because everyone involved successfully walked the line between impertinent and sincere. Ragnarok was light on its feet, no matter the cumbersome box-office expectations.

By comparison, despite all of Aquaman’s cheekiness, it’s a bloated, draggy affair. Whether it’s the cutesy exchanges between Arthur and Mera or the garish/lavish underwater production design, Aquaman mostly feels waterlogged and impersonal — a grab bag of weirdness, non sequiturs and self-consciously “awesome” moments that Wan hopes add up to something sublimely stupid.

In Momoa, Aquaman has the right man to carry off all this silliness. He’s got such a gonzo physique and exuberant expression — he’s like what would happen if a mere mortal was pumped full of testosterone and enthusiasm — that my default reaction is to giggle at his very presence. Where Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill were stoic dullards, Momoa saunters and swaggers. He’s blessed to not have to play iconic superheroes like Batman and Superman — honestly, no one cares about Aquaman, so there’s no pressure there. When Momoa keeps losing his shirt, the camera ogles him with such delight that it’s entirely winning. (And as a straight guy, I recognize that those beefcake shots are not necessarily there for my benefit.) He instinctively channels the giddy, duuuuude spirit of the proceedings.

But ultimately, this is what’s so hard about silly superhero films. In a sense, they’re owning up to a fundamental fact about comic-book movies — which is that, honestly, they’re all kinda dumb. People who can fly or lift heavy things or climb buildings? It’s total fantasy — but part of the reason that these stories work is that we emotionally invest in such universal tales of heroism and self-sacrifice. They’re goofy movies that we choose to treat seriously — if we acknowledged their idiocy, the whole illusion would come crashing down.

Aquaman didn’t really work for me because, on some level, I guess I don’t like to be reminded how ludicrous superhero movies are. Joking about their self-seriousness doesn’t puncture the solemnity — it just spoils the fun. I know what I’m watching is ridiculous — I don’t need a seahorse-riding Dolph Lundgren to rub that fact in my face.

Here are three other takeaways from Aquaman.

#1. Oh god, there’s another “Africa” cover.

Indicative of Aquaman’s cheesiness, Pitbull (the king of tacky) has a song on the film’s soundtrack called “Ocean to Ocean” that heavily samples Toto’s “Africa.” Oh, lordy.

This has been a surprisingly good year for Toto, the forgotten 1980s soft-rock group. Back in May, Weezer got tons of attention for its cover of the band’s 1982 smash “Africa,” the latest example of how aging alt-rock groups are glomming onto older rock hits in order to stay relevant. Weezer’s version was good for a laugh but nothing more — cynical nostalgia is even worse than regular nostalgia — but I actively groaned when the Pitbull song popped up in Aquaman.

What’s most hilarious is that “Ocean to Ocean” has zero to do with Aquaman. Well, that’s not entirely true: At the song’s start, Pitbull does brag, “They tried to get rid of me / But from ocean to ocean / They are gonna have to deal with me.” Here’s the thing, though: I don’t want to have to deal with Pitbull — or any more “Africa” covers.

#2. Aquaman has dumb powers.

MEL’s Nick Leftley recently pointed out one of Aquaman’s liabilities as a superhero, which is that he has lame powers. “Once you get past the whole ‘talks to fish’ thing,” he wrote, “Aquaman’s powers are kinda boilerplate: Super strength, super toughness, super stamina — in general, your basic brawler set (having eyes adapted to see at 6,000 fathoms might be useful for finding your underwear in the dark, but it’s not the most intimidating of powers).”

This is something I thought about constantly while watching Aquaman. When you’re fantasizing about which superhero you’d like to be, a large part of your rationale is that you’d love to be able to do what they do. But who would want to be Aquaman? What does he do, exactly?

In the film, we see Arthur being able to summon aquatic life — they feel a kinship to him — and he can swim super-fast and breathe underwater. But Aquaman is basically a run-of-the-mill demigod who can also do fish stuff. Weirdly, that makes him less cool than your average superhero. For instance, the Flash is fast — that’s pretty exciting. Meanwhile, here are the things Aquaman can do, according to the official DC Comics page: “He can breathe underwater, swim at tremendous speeds and telepathically communicate with sea life. Being able to withstand ocean depths, he gets bonus points on land with his superhuman strength, enhanced senses and nearly impenetrable skin.”

Basically, though, every superhero is really strong. That’s just a given. But I don’t like oceans. I don’t care for sea life. So having to be saddled with lots of powers associated with that world isn’t a plus. It would be like learning I’m really good at talking to dentists or I’m able to play 8-tracks with my mind. These are powers I don’t need — and will never need. So every time Aquaman jumps into the water in the movie, I just thought, “Oh swell, more fish stuff.” It’s not like he can breathe in outer space, which would be a far cooler talent.

Part of the reason I’m so blasé about Aquaman is that I came of age watching the 1970s/1980s animated series Super Friends, which featured DC characters, including Aquaman, who was always the least-interesting superhero. Sadly, there aren’t many Super Friends clips available, but this one is a decent illustration of what a putz Aquaman is. I’d rather have freaking Wonder Dog rescue me.

#3. Here’s a brief history of haka.

At Aquaman’s premiere, Jason Momoa, some cast members and his kids took a moment on the red carpet to perform a dance that most moviegoers probably wouldn’t recognize.

It’s known as the haka, which, according to New Zealand’s official travel website, “is a type of ancient Māori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace. Haka are a fierce display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity. Actions include violent foot-stamping, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping to accompany a loud chant. The words of a haka often poetically describe ancestors and events in the tribe’s history.”

Sports fans are familiar with the haka, especially people who watch the All Blacks, a New Zealand rugby team that performs the haka before their matches. But the tradition is also felt in America: The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors college football team is known for its haka before games. And the U.S. men’s basketball squad got an intimate introduction to the haka during the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, when America squared off against the New Zealand team. Just look at James Harden’s face.

Discussing his performance of the haka at the Aquaman premiere, Momoa said, “Obviously, I’m very close to it. And I made up our own haka for my family, and my children were out there with me. I thought it would be — [because we] based the character on Polynesian culture — I thought it would be honoring a lot of people by doing it.”

This, by the way, is one of the great byproducts of a more diverse Hollywood. Even if a movie like Aquaman isn’t so great, simply by casting Momoa Warner Bros. creates a space for actors of different backgrounds to be stars. (As Momoa said back in 2014 when he was picked to be Aquaman, “The greatest thing for me is that Polynesians, our gods, Kahoali, Maui, all these water gods, so it’s really cool and a honor to be playing a [water] character. And there’s not too many brown superheroes, so I’m really looking forward to representing the Polynesians, the natives.”)

I’m not sure if I ever need to see Aquaman again, but I’ve watched his dance about half-a-dozen times already. And if you’ve seen that haka enough, check out Momoa back during his Game of Thrones days: