Aquaman ★★★½

Humankind is killing the ocean. That's not really disputable. One hundred years ago the seas were relatively pristine and hospitable to the countless creatures who live within them. Now there's a continent-sized patch of plastic garbage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, massive "dead zones" in the Caribbean, and the Great Barrier Reef is a blanched skeleton. In another hundred years it's likely that the vast majority of marine species will be extinct and the ocean will be a vast roil of steaming acid. If there is some sort of Atlantean civilization down there they would be fully justified in waging ceaseless war against us surface dwellers until we stop literally murdering their world. That's King Orm's plan in Aquaman: to save the ocean from the depravity of civilization.

Or...is it?

Aquaman is the second big superhero movie of the year after Black Panther to introduce a "villain" who diagnoses a fundamental injustice in the global capitalist order, but who, over time, is shown to be driven in fact by a deep hostility to an estranged relative. In Black Panther, the exile Killmonger resents his cousin T'Challa's rootedness in Wakandan culture and society. In Aquaman, the role of exile and native son are flipped, but Orm is still driven by resentment of his earth-walking half-brother, who he blames for the death of their mother. The original model for this brand of post-crisis superhero is Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, who thunders away at the corrupt, decadent economic elite of Gotham before we learn that he's simply an incel acting out his frustration at being Friendzoned by Talia al Ghul. This is going to be the way of it from now on. As the economic and ecological ground continues to dissolve beneath our feet, Hollywood will find ways to psychologize away our nagging suspicion that something radical as to be done to save the planet, finding the source of our visceral urge for self-preservation and social justice in some happenstance of childhood trauma. Individualizing and psychologizing away the pathologies caused by living under an unsustainable and nightmarish social order through mass media is neoliberalism producing the cultural antibodies that fend off the potentially-lethal infection of radical solidarity. The crucial work this ideological maneuver does can be demonstrated by how these villain shifts inevitably WEAKEN THE FILM. They reduce the villain to a squawking child, and more importantly, completely abandon the conflict that has before that point determined the shape of the story. Vanquishing the bad guy may take care of their daddy issues, but it does nothing about the problem the audience has been contemplating for the whole movie. It's obviously a staple of screenwriting that all the main characters need to have "personal stakes" in the story, and that's probably why the filmmakers THINK they're neutering their own narrative, but only something much deeper and more structural accounts for building these narratives up just to destroy them in the first place.

Also there's fucking crabmen fighting laser-enhanced sharks. Pretty cool. Better than Venom.