It seems as if the DCEU is going to make some of the same mistakes as the MCU did in its phase two. The DCEU is the DC Comics Extended Universe, or the term for the super-hero movies produced by Zack Snyder that began with Man of Steel (2013), the darker and grittier re-imagining of Clark Kent aka Superman. The MCU is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the franchise of films that began with Iron Man (2008). Phase one was the series of films that led up to The Avengers(2012). Phase two was the series immediately after that.
In phase two, it was already established that a team of super-heroes banded together to save the world. However, in phase two, the individual characters behaved like that team-up never happened or those other characters weren’t an option when more Earth-threatening events occurred. The other characters often weren’t even acknowledged. That eventually ended but it was highly annoying. This film is now an example of that same annoyance.
Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones and Stargate: Atlantis) stars as Arthur Curry, a man who can breathe underwater and talk to animals. He was introduced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but only had one scene and no dialogue. He got a more bumped up role in Justice League (2017), the fifth movie in the DCEU, but there wasn’t much explanation of his origins. He merely joined forces with the other heroes, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Cyborg. All of them joined forces to defeat Steppenwolf, an alien that attacked the homes of all of them, including Atlantis, which is the underwater city where Arthur’s family originated.
This time, the villain isn’t an alien from outer space, another dimension or some place beyond Atlantis. This time, the villain is from inside Atlantis itself. Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring and Watchmen) co-stars as Orm, the half-brother to Arthur who is currently in charge of Atlantis. He’s angry at people who live on land polluting the oceans, which is killing marine life, including the citizens of Atlantis. Air pollution contributes to climate change, which is also adversely affecting the oceans. Orm wants to wage war on “surface dwellers” as he calls humans because of all their pollution.
I got how this can be seen as an internal Atlantis problem or a family dispute, so it should be handled internally or within the family. That could be the justification of Arthur not contacting anyone in the so-called Justice League. However, when Orm threatens to wage war on all humans and it looks like he might succeed, it seems very odd and unlikely that Arthur wouldn’t warn Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman in the least or give them some kind of heads up.
Speaking of which, of all the DCEU films, Wonder Woman (2017) still stands as the best. Her origin story and hero’s journey were better paced, better written, more emotional and weighted. It wasn’t just an explosion of CGI or a vomiting of visual effects. This film has potentially better villains, but the screenplay doesn’t give them much more than one note to play. The villain in Wonder Woman was a cartoon ultimately but the real nemesis was war itself with which it grappled better. This movie doesn’t really grapple with any big ideas like that beyond the generic “what makes a hero” or family themes.
I’m also not convinced that the film, directed by James Wan, does a sufficient amount of world-building. We’re led through the various kingdoms within or surrounding Atlantis. With the exception of one, the Kingdom of the Fishermen, I’m not sure what distinguished one place from the other. The Kingdom of the Fishermen was different because everyone there didn’t look human like Arthur and his family. The Fishermen looked like fish-heads on top of mermaid bodies. Otherwise, I don’t get the divisions, which wouldn’t have bothered me if this movie didn’t take time to visit every single kingdom, dragging the run time to too long.
In plenty of these comic-book adaptations whether in the DCEU or MCU, we’ve seen things like this. We’ve seen super-heroes originate from isolated lands that seem magical and hidden from the rest of humanity. Sometimes, it’s far away as in Thor (2011). Sometimes, it’s a bit closer as in Wonder Woman or Black Panther (2018). Often, the central conflict involves the royalty that oversee these magical places and often that conflict is one royal member trying to take the throne, as in both Thor and Black Panther.
Like Black Panther, it’s always better when the one trying to take the throne has a motivation or an ideology that we can understand and with which possibly empathize. Orm has one such motivation and ideology. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore his motivation and ideology beyond him saying it in one scene. Plus, the people of Atlantis have access to advanced technology, but nothing that can help with the pollution problem. Also, Orm is so one-dimensional that he never thinks to talk to the humans and try diplomacy, especially after the incident with Steppenwolf. Instead of being of the Earth, it instead feels like this whole thing is set in a fantasy land or on a completely different planet, such Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels.
All these super-hero films after a while can feel derivative and similar to so many others. This one in particular though felt that much derivative. It was almost as if Wan were ripping off every action-adventure film he could. This is fine, but it started piling up to the point where I felt this film had no original idea. At one moment, I thought I was watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, then Ant-Man and the Wasp, then The Sword in the Stone and then finally He-Man. After a while, this movie just became too much and all over the place.
There is a problematic element though. There are essentially two villains at work in this film. The movie opens with Arthur fighting one. It ends with him fighting the other. In the opening fight, Arthur does nothing to save the villain when it’s apparent he might die and even the villain’s son begs for help. In the closing fight, Arthur goes out of his way to make sure that the second villain is unharmed and doesn’t die. Why this might be problematic, particularly on a racial level, is that the first villain who dies is black and the second villain who lives is white.
This isn’t the kind of film to have thoughtful conversations. Wan is Malaysian Chinese. Momoa is Hawaiian and the actor playing Arthur’s father is Maori, so there is a bit of diversity here. But, beyond infusing Arthur Curry with a bit of Polynesian culture, this movie doesn’t seem interested in racial dynamics or dealing with true racial issues.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, action and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 23 mins.