There’s always been this perception that the DC cinematic universe trails behind Marvel. In terms of box office, critical acclaim and sheer volume, that’s certainly the case, and when the DCU is bad, it’s really bad (I’m still trying to forget both ‘Suicide Squad’ and ‘Justice League’). I do have an argument for the DCU though, and in many ways, James Wan’s preposterous ‘Aquaman’ offers a glimpse of the important ways in which this franchise distinguishes itself. Where the MCU exemplifies unimaginative stability, the DCU is built on its faltering ambition.
No one is going to claim that ‘Aquaman’ is a great film - it’s too long, too complicated and incredibly silly (I mean, it has Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark). Somehow though, amongst its mess, it seems to work, precisely because it knows it’s all these things. There’s no way to root ‘Aquaman’ into any kind of reality. The only chance it has to win its audience over is to lean into the silliness and offer something fun, bombastic and exciting, so Wan fully embraces the ridiculous and goes for the operatic, both in terms of tone and visual approach. This film looks incredible, shot and edited with tremendous energy, bolstered by shockingly ambitious set pieces, bursting with colour and detail, and taking full advantage of its blockbuster scale. Even its visual effects are a wonder (apart from the weird de-ageing of Temuera Morrison), and much of this makes up for how clunky and overstuffed the screenplay is.
This really is where the DCU stands apart from the MCU. There’s a cinematic quality to these films that makes them far more visually interesting, and while they don’t always live up to their ambition, at least they have some. They actually look like films, embrace the possibilities of modern film technology and the canvas of increasingly bigger screens. Films like ‘Aquaman’ and ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ may be preposterous, but they rarely follow any kind of predictable structure, so that even when it goes off the rails, at least they seem to be trying something. The problem with the franchise arises when they try to connect them, but ‘Aquaman’ also proves the point that these films are at their strongest when they stand apart from the barely-constructed overarching narrative. The MCU is comforting in its clarity and digestibility, but I have to be honest, it’s the films of the DCU that stick in my mind. In 21 films, the MCU haven’t crafted a sequence even half as breathtaking as the Trench sequence in ‘Aquaman’ or the No Man’s Land sequence in ‘Wonder Woman’.
So sure, the performances in ‘Aquaman’ are kinda rubbish, the female characters barely exist, the dialogue is so chewy it could break your jaw, the story is completely preposterous and it goes for way too long, but I still really dug ‘Aquaman’. Its set pieces are impeccable, it looks remarkable and it totally leans into its ridiculous operatics, giving you permission to laugh with it and at it without feeling too bad. Jason Momoa may think he’s the star, but this film really belongs to James Wan, who approaches it with energy, imagination and ambition, and when it comes down to it, I’ll take an ambitious failure over something predictably safe any day.
Wan fully embraces the ridiculous and goes for the operatic, both in terms of tone and visual approach.
Plus it has an octopus playing the drums and Julie Andrews as a giant sea-monster, so what’s not to love.
PICTURE & SOUND
Oh boy, are you in for a treat! The 2160p transfer for ‘Aquaman’ is impeccable, up there as one of the best I’ve seen in the 4K UHD format. Upscaled from a 2K DI, the level of detail is remarkable, only emphasising how beautifully designed the film is. The image is consistently sharp and enables a striking depth of field, and the Dolby Vision/HDR10 allows the colours to really burst from the screen. The aspect ration shifts between 2.39:1 and 1.78:1 to replicate the IMAX experience, and the IMAX footage (which makes up the bulk of the film) result in even greater depth and detail in the image. Many contemporary films never seem to be quite as impressive in this format as they should be, but this ‘Aquaman’ transfer fully embraces the opportunities afforded it by the higher resolution. The Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track lives up to the standard of the transfer. The track is full-bodied and dynamic, beautifully mixed and balanced, and bolstered with terrific bass. Overall, ‘Aquaman’ on 4K UHD offers an overwhelming, reference-quality experience.
Featured on the 1080p Blu-ray disc included are a number of featurettes covering the making of the film. They’re all pretty standard, but they cover a surprising amount of ground and feature most of the major players in the film. It all amounts to around 100 minutes of material, divided over the twelve featurettes. There’s also a short preview of ‘Shazam!’ included.