Over the course of Aquaman, Arthur Curry travels across the seven seas, which might be part of the reason why, at times, Aquaman feels like seven movies in one. It’s jam-packed, with seemingly every other scene being either an impressive action sequence or yet another exposition dump. It’s a lot of movie, and the film just keeps deluging viewers with new sights, plot mechanics, and developments while hoping they don’t drown. Aquaman is quite fun, to be sure, so maybe we can just chalk up the breakneck worldbuilding up to the setting. Atlantis is, after all, a strange and complicated new world.
So was Pandora, which makes the runaway box office success of Aquaman particularly (in unexpectedly) instructive.
It’s become easy to hate on Avatar, especially now that James Cameron is making four sequels that nobody really seemed to have been clamoring for (and one of them is subtitled The Seed Bearer). But Avatar is still the highest-grossing movie of all time, and Aquaman, despite its own financial success, is an unwitting reminder of why we all liked Avatar in the first place.
Part of Avatar’s appeal was, no doubt, the visuals and special effects behind them. Avatar is one of the rare movies that actually merited 3D glasses (and the accompanying pricier ticket), and Pandora really felt alive on the big screen. The animation — so important to Avatar’s success that we really ought to be classifying the film as a cartoon — was stunning, wowing audiences with each new floating mountain, glowing tree, or strange new alien creature.
Aquaman was a pretty movie too, though the special effects weren’t as awe-inspiring as Avatar’s, no matter what James Wan says. Atlantis’ glowing, jellyfish-like towers, glittery aquatic vehicles, and many strange undersea species and races were all a sight to behold, but there was something missing underneath all the fishy flash — a simple story.
Avatar’s plot was essentially Dances With Wolves, but in space. Or it was Ferngully, but in space. Take your pick, there are plenty of comparisons to be made. Avatar’s plot — an outsider who becomes ingrained in a native society that’s more in touch with nature before eventually becoming that society’s savior — is pretty well-trod ground at this point (even if the whole “white savior” aspect is more than a little problematic.) But, it’s in no small part because of the familiarity of that trope-filled plot that audiences were able to latch on to Avatar. Even as the movie added more depth and complications to the world of Pandora, exploring the rich customs and traditions of the Na’vi, audiences never felt lost. It was a comforting story, told and embellished in a rich, rewarding way.
Aquaman kind of has that familiar Dances With Wolves plot, too. Arthur Curry is half-Atlantean, but he grew up as a part of the surface world, and had never been to Atlantis before endeavoring to become the undersea country’s king. He’s an outsider who just so happens to be the best at being an Atlantean, as evidenced by his fancy trident.
But, here are some other things that happen in Aquaman (there are possibly some light spoilers ahead, but nothing too explicit): Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washes up on land and has Arthur before disappearing. Vulko (Willem Dafoe) trains Arthur for some initially unfulfilled purposes, as seen in flashbacks. Oceanmaster (Patrick Wilson) launches a false flag operation to start to unite four of the seven kingdoms of Atlantis (more on that later) under his control. Mera (Amber Heard) goes behind her father’s back to help Arthur.
Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) gets an entire backstory wedged in there, too. The trident is a MacGuffin, but it requires several other MacGuffins to obtain. Arthur fights Oceanmaster. Arthur goes to a lost kingdom in the Sahara Desert. Arthur goes to Italy. Arthur goes to a trench. Arthur goes to the “uncharted sea.” Arthur fights a Kraken, a powerful beast that emerges out of a submerged left field.
It’s exhausting, and as Mera, Amber Heard does her best to explain the plot as its happening to Arthur, our similarly confused audience stand-in.
Aquaman is a fun movie — it’s possibly the most enjoyable movie in the entire DCEU, even if Wonder Woman remains the best film in the franchise by leagues. Aquaman is a lot to take in, and as landlubbers, it can be hard to swallow all that water. That keeps Aquaman from ever feeling comfortable or allowing audiences to wallow in that comfort themselves. Avatar’s familiar plot, meanwhile, allowed us to feel like we were actually experiencing Pandora, rather than having Pandora’s many complications explained to us.
But, then again, there isn’t a scene in Avatar where the heroes walk out of the ocean while Pitbull raps over a remix of Toto’s “Africa,” so maybe Aquaman is the better movie.