Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Shadow Over Aquaman

I'm back again after the holidays and eighteen sleep-deprived days at home. Two days into the new year we saw Aquaman at a mostly deserted movie theater. That's what happens in the middle of a holiday week in small-town Indiana. We stayed for the last of the credits and when we walked out of the theater into the darkened hallways of the multiplex we saw only the manager, who was sweeping up.

Like I said, I was sleep-deprived. I have to admit that I almost dozed off three times during Aquaman. But even if I hadn't already been sleepy, I might have felt the same way, for Aquaman is too long and, for at least an hour, too slow-moving to hold a person's interest very well. The players are Jason Momoa as Aquabro, Willem Dafoe as Mr. Miyagi, and Nicole Kidman as the Aquamom. They are supported by Dolph Lundgren as a guy whose pink hair flows and swirls like he's in a VO5 commercial and Randall Park as Conspiracy Brother, among others. Every one of them also takes a turn playing the role of Basil Exposition, and every five or ten minutes during the movie someone stops the proceedings to tell you a little story about something you don't really care about or understand. I actually groaned at one point because of it. This is no way to tell a story. In fact, one of the first things you learn in storytelling is to show it, not tell it. Even my thirteen-year-old nephew said that the movie is "cringy" in places. It's not a good sign when a kid calls your superhero movie "cringy," but that's a good word to describe the dialogue in Aquaman, which includes a little gem in which someone or other says that he plans to become "the Ocean Master." If he were in Machu Picchu or San Francisco or some similar place, I suppose he would want to become the Stair Master.

Near the beginning of Aquaman there is a little still life shown in the interior of the lighthouse keeper's home. One of the elements in this tableau is a paperback version of The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft. I'm not the first to comment on the Lovecraftian elements in Aquaman. Others have already gone there, including more than a few who just have to tell you again that Lovecraft was a horrible racist. And did we mention that Lovecraft was a horrible racist? There can be no doubt that H.P. Lovecraft wrote again and again about race and the mixing of races, as well as about the degeneration, decay, and dissolution of individual human beings and their familial or tribal lines. There is just that in "The Dunwich Horror," a tale of a kind of demigod named Wilbur Whateley, first published in Weird Tales in April 1929. The same theme appears again in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," published posthumously in the same magazine in April 1942. It seems to me, though, that Lovecraft could have been writing about himself when he told tales about mixing and degeneration or decay, for his father was a common traveling salesman and eventual syphilitic while his mother was the daughter of a prominent and well-established New England family. (Even she ended up in the bughouse.) I sense that the author himself felt the creeping of tainted blood in his semi-blue veins as he lived out his life in a decaying home among decaying fortunes. In any case, Aquaman is also a tale of the mixing of races. The results here are positive, though, in that the title character is not degenerate but emergent. However, there is a degenerate race of men in Aquaman, and I couldn't help but see them as the Deep Ones from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Finally there is a deep-sea leviathan like Cthulhu, befriended by Aquabro and voiced by Julie Andrews of all people. Mary Poppins returns indeed.

I haven't yet seen a DC movie as good as the least good of the Marvel Studios movies, but then I haven't seen them all yet, from either studio. I can say, though, that the DC movies lack a kind of warmth and humanity that prevails more or less in the Marvel movies. They're also slow, talky, and lacking in humor. (1) I'm not sure why that is. Marvel doesn't have a lock on good screenwriters and directors. DC ought to be able to come up with something comparable. But they don't. As I have said before, DC ought to hire Marvel Studios to make their movies for them. Anyway, we saw previews for M. Night Shyamalan's new movie Glass on Wednesday night last week. If you have to see a new superhero movie this month, see that one instead of Aquaman. You can also look forward to Captain Marvel in March and Avengers: Endgame in April. Both are from Marvel Studios. Sorry, DC.

(1) The DC movies also miss out on the essence of the original comic book characters. For example, in Superman Returns, from 2006, Superman becomes Superstalker, a brooding creep who spies on Lois Lane as only a super-powered guy from Krypton can. In that and other Superman movies, the original and essential love triangle of Clark Kent-Lois Lane-Superman is banished to the Phantom Zone and Superman is made to be in love with Lois Lane. That's not how it works, people, and if you knew better, maybe moviegoers would like your product. Beyond that--and speaking of racism and racial stereotypes--the makers of DC movies are guilty of what I think is a pretty egregious perpetuation of a stereotype of Jewish men as cowards, weaklings, and nebbishes in the character of the Flash, from Justice League (2017). If they had had a black Flash like Stepin Fetchit or an Asian Flash like Long Duk Dong, viewers and critics would have howled, and rightly so. But this is the twenty-first century and one of the few permissible stereotypes left is one or more of the Jewish people. I guess that's to be expected when one of our major political parties is so outwardly and unabashedly antisemitic. And it ain't the Republicans.

H.P. Lovecraft had only one cover story in Weird Tales but in order to get it he had to go to Canada and then only after he had died. The story was "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and it appeared in the May 1942 issue of the Canadian edition of the magazine. The artist was cartoonist and illustrator Edmond Good.

Text and caption copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

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