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Spectacle or Art? Aquaman 2 is the Quintessential Superhero Movie

Justin Sau

February 7, 2024

The sequel is the quintessential superhero movie

With James Gunn announcing his plans to revamp the DC cinematic universe completely, I decided to check out the last installment in the DC Extended Universe to say a final goodbye to the inconsistent studio that was such a significant part of my childhood. 

I didn’t have very high expectations going into Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, as it received 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. I entered the cinema fully anticipating a ‘turn-your-brain-off’ kind of movie that I have grown used to. In that sense, I wasn’t disappointed. 

The DCEU, aware of its impending doom, wastes no time in trying to set up a larger universe in Aquaman 2, instead choosing a contained reintroduction of Momoa’s Aquaman/Arthur Curry. A half-human, half-Atlantean hybrid, Arthur is now the rightful king of Atlantis while also serving as the inspirational superhero Aquaman. 

Momoa’s Aquaman finds himself facing Black Manta (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a returning villain who wants revenge on Aquaman for killing his father in the first movie. He allows himself to be possessed by the Black Trident, an evil weapon that was forged by the seventh kingdom of Atlantis, which has been imprisoned in ice for its crimes. Manta’s plan involves using an ancient glowing green energy source to warm the earth and free the seventh kingdom. 

A creative and imaginative story? Absolutely. Visually, the movie is astounding as well. The CGI was nearly excellent, and the action sequences were well-choreographed and intense. 

Yet Aquaman 2 seemed more concerned with worldbuilding and fast-paced fights than the actual story. The pacing was frequently off, the tone was all over the place, and the movie felt oversaturated with the sheer number of set pieces. 

All of these factors made Aquaman 2 feel like the embodiment of the modern superhero genre. Walking out of the cinema, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s infamous statement that Marvel movies weren’t cinema: ‘The closest I can think of them…is theme parks.’

Tacky jokes shoehorned in, fight sequence after fight sequence, an overreliance on visual effects — all these are trends that are becoming more and more prominent in modern superhero movies. The focus on thrills and spectacle over thematic expression and complex narratives is one that can be seen in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Black Adam, and The Flash.

“Cinema [is] about revelation—aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual revelation,” Scorsese explains. “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger.”

However, notable examples do seem to challenge this notion. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and James Mangold’s Logan have gained widespread acclaim for navigating beyond pure spectacle, offering audiences moral complexities, explorations of human frailty, and emotional depth. 

More recently, Matt Reeves’ The Batman and the Spider-Verse series has challenged Scorsese’s words with innovative animation and beautiful cinematography, along with profound and complex character-driven narratives. 

Yet these works are often said to ‘transcend the genre.’ Does that mean the superhero genre itself is inherently not cinema?

In the end, it’s up to your personal interpretation. Snobbery and criticism of certain types of cinema are not exclusive to the superhero genre. Superhero movies, just like any genre of films, certainly have the potential to create complex narratives that blend entertainment with artistic depth. But they also have the potential to create mindless films that are little more than glorified action montages. 

The truth is, we need both. Although almost everyone appreciates a good piece of cinema that leaves them thinking, just as many people go to the theater for simple, straightforward escapism. Aquaman 2 may not be cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but it fulfills its purpose as an entertaining and visually stunning blockbuster that immerses audiences in a world of fantastical characters and thrilling adventures.

As the genre continues to evolve, it’s an opportunity for filmmakers and audiences to push the boundaries and explore the artistic potential of superhero films further. Ultimately, the status of superhero films as ‘art’ depends on the creativity, depth, and thematic exploration that each film brings to the table. 

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