Visiting The AQUAMAN Edit Bay With James Wan

Checking in on the King of Atlantis.

The DCEU is in transition. Despite a wildly supportive subset of fans, its opening salvo of films leading up to Justice League left many underwhelmed. On the other hand, Wonder Woman proved that by focusing on character and story over empty iconography, there might be hope for the DCEU yet. Next year the DCEU’s attempt at rehabilitation will continue with Shazam! and Wonder Woman 1984 (not to mention whatever this Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie ends up being). But first: Aquaman.

We had the opportunity to visit the Aquaman edit bay to watch select scenes from the film and discuss them with director James Wan. While the footage we saw failed to deliver a solid sense of the film’s overall quality, it did make clear that Wan is definitely swinging for the fences on this one, both in terms of underwater visuals and blending genres.

The first bit of footage we looked at was the extra long trailer shown to attendees at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. (You can read a detailed run through here.) Watching it a second time, and with less pressure to remember it all and write it up immediately, I was able to pay more attention to how good Wan’s action looks. Most of the footage takes place above sea level, focusing largely on a cool rooftop chase involving Black Manta and his goons, and an Indiana Jones-inspired desert trek for Arthur and Mera that we’d see much more of later in our visit. The rooftop chase in particular looks fun and fast without losing coherence in the edit, which is always appreciated. While still just a trailer, the extra time allows Wan to really get across the scope of action he’s going for as well as some of the comedic tone between Jason Momoa and Amber Heard.

The biggest moment of the presentation, of course, is the end which reveals Aquaman in his golden comic-accurate costume, a touch some might not have expected given its perceived silliness. As we spoke to Wan, his awareness of Aquaman’s cultural cache became quite clear:

In pop culture, he’s known as the lamest superhero. So you gotta lean into that, you gotta play with it, you gotta have fun with it. Yes, he rides seahorses, but in our movie you wouldn’t be laughing at seahorses like that.

This applied to the costume as well: “The key was to try and take that classic outfit and make sure it’s not goofy.” Somehow they pulled it off. The golden shirt manages to both honor the source material and look natural on this wildly divergent interpretation of the character.

After this, we started watching full sequences from the film. The first, and by far the best, was the prologue, which communicates the romance between Aquaman’s father - a humble lighthouse keeper played by Temuera Morrison - and mother, Nicole Kidman’s Queen of Atlantis. Genuine chemistry between actors sells this romance in a remarkably short amount of time. Morrison finds Kidman washed ashore and nurses her back to health. Despite their obvious differences, she falls for him (or maybe just his amazingly adorable dog) and before you know it, baby Arthur is in the picture.

We were informed that Kidman’s Queen is on the run from an arranged marriage she does not want. When Arthur is still a baby, her past catches up with her as a crew of Atlantean thugs come to kidnap her. This leads to an amazing action scene in which Nicole Kidman beats the shit out of a bunch of guys while Wan’s camera wildly flies around, capturing her badassery in one unbroken shot. “Yes, I’ve always wanted to see Nicole in a kick-ass role as well, just beating everyone up,” claims Wan, and even with the physical difficulty of all that coordinated action (the one shot took two full days to get right), Kidman looks very at home with it all.

Of course, she gets taken back to Atlantis anyway. Wan stressed that this opening romance and tragedy is “the emotional backbone for the movie and how it informs Arthur’s character and his journey and his bitter outlook on the world of Atlantis”, so it makes sense that he’d want us to see it. The prologue works as its own short film and almost makes you wish this were the main story.

The next scene we saw was an arena battle between Aquaman and his brother, Ocean Master (played by Patrick Wilson). There is a little chitchat between the two characters before the action begins, but clearly the point of showing us this bit was to display how the underwater action looks, something we haven’t seen a ton of yet.

After showing the footage, Wan discussed the trouble production went through to make sure it all looked right:

It’s all dry for wet. It is very difficult trying to simulate the look of weightlessness you would get underwater. We did tons of [research and development] early on on how people would move underwater. We built props and we built sets and we submerged everything under water and did tons of study just to see what things would look like. Ultimately what we realized is underwater, we’re still very much limited by what we’re capable of doing. We’re normal human beings; we’re not Atlantean, right?

Instead, Wan and his crew used complex harnesses and wirework to achieve these effects. Floating CG hair and a weird shimmery filter help sell the setting as underwater, but movement is affected as well. As Aquaman and his brother have their fight, their strikes appear to have weight despite other movements appearing weightless. It’s going to take a suspension of disbelief for some viewers, but overall it works. Part of that is due to the amount of thought that went into it. At one point, Mera traps the Ocean King in a bubble of air. As his lungs shift from water to air, he vomits water (we saw Nicole Kidman’s character do this as well). When he re-submerges himself and yells in anger, bubbles come out of his mouth as he has not yet refilled his lungs with water. Interesting touches like this help a great deal.

Not for nothing, this sequence also featuring a fair amount of Dolph Lundgren (with multiple lines and everything!) which made me very happy. He plays Mera’s father, apparently on the side of the Ocean Master, along with almost everyone else we saw, indicating that Aquaman has a long way to go before he can win over his people. Though this sequence focused mostly on action, it did provide a brief sense of Atlantean culture, something Wan claims he goes into a great deal as Arthur’s journey takes him all over the underwater world: “It allows my lead hero to see the different kingdoms. And seeing the different kingdoms and seeing how different people live kind of informs what kind of king he should eventually be.”

These clips all had interesting visuals, but so far we hadn’t seen anything that showcased Jason Momoa’s interpretation of Aquaman. An integral part of Justice League, his character in that film lacked development beyond just being a kind of heavy metal badass. While fun, such shallow characterization simply won’t float a feature film. The next, and last, bit we saw finally delivered more of his character.

The sequence is basically the Arthur-Mera Indiana Jones scenes from the extended trailer in full. The two jump from a plane into a desert on the way to revealing a hidden message in a secret, ruinous chamber. From beginning to end, Mera knows what she’s doing and Arthur kind of mocks it as an incredulous disbeliever. Their repertoire in this scene (and look, maybe just this scene), is entirely based on Mera telling Arthur something real and him not believing it and giving her grief. It’s the Han-Leia approach to cinematic flirting. Sometimes it works (as in Romancing the Stone, a movie Wan claims as a huge influence on Aquaman), but when it doesn’t, it can often be grating or seem mean. In the footage we saw, this unfortunately applies to Aquaman, but it’s also very possible this is just a function of where his character is at this point in the story: impatient and irritated with the very idea of Atlantis.

All in all, what we saw was encouraging but not totally conclusive. I’m somewhat worried about Momoa, but I’m also totally into the way Wan is going all-out in terms of underwater imagery and general weirdness. “I didn’t go into this with the mindset of making a superhero movie,” Wan claims. “I came into this with the mindset of making a fantasy movie.” What we saw certainly bears that out. Wan and his team have created a remarkable world I’m excited to explore to its full extent when Aquaman comes out December 14. If nothing else, this is going to be a visually unique film with just a ton of awesome sharks.