James Wan’s entry in the DC movie canon is a splashy but bloated epic that rides high thanks to Jason Momoa
Aquaman is unlike any superhero movie you’ve seen before. Director James Wan attacks the material with the ferocity of an angry kraken. His fantasy/sci-fi hybrid is epic in scale and as ambitious as any Marvel movie – think Avatar, meets Blade Runner with a dash of the PS4’s Uncharted series. But like its titular hero Arthur Curry aka the Aquaman (Jason Momoa), this film is of two worlds; a fun swashbuckling adventure and formulaic studio sea sludge crafted with an eye towards selling merch.
The movie’s biggest problem is bloat. Even with a 143-minute runtime, the picture tracks like Warner Bros. packed way too much in (as evidenced by the production crediting eight writers). The film features two prologues before jumping into the story proper (which also serves as a third character introduction. Sheesh.
Decades ago a royal ocean-dweller named Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed up on a lighthouse keeper’s doorstep. The couple falls in love, and their forbidden romance bears them their half-human half-Atlantean son, Arthur. But their happy life can’t last. Atlanna fled the seas to escape her royal wedding, and when her Atlantean people finally track her down, all hell breaks loose. After barely defeating the attack squad sent to retrieve her, Atlanna says goodbye to Arthur and goes back home, leaving him to grow up as a land dweller.
But all is not well below the ocean’s surface. The Atlantean king Orm (Patrick Wilson) has had enough of surface dwellers destroying the planet and polluting the sea. Orm plans to unite the underwater kingdoms and with their might behind him, lay siege to humanity. Royal advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Princess Mera (Amber Heard) have other plans, though. They secretly recruit Arthur, who has a claim to the throne, to usurp Orm and rule over his kingdom. To do so Arthur and Mera travel the world searching for a mystical trident that will grant him the power to unite his people.
Pun Alert! Aquaman sinks or swims based on Momoa’s performance. Momoa’s version of Aquaman has lived with us in pop culture since 2016, and this outing doesn’t reveal any meaningful new layers. Momoa plays the character as a gruff, beer-swilling brute with a heart of gold. It helps that Momoa looks capable of fist-fighting a great white shark – the man is five-litres of protein shake in a one-litre bottle. He gives the type of rough around the edges, charismatic performance we saw from Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis during their 80s primes.
What separates Aquaman from his DC movie brethren (and plenty of the Marvel heroes too) is that Arthur Curry enjoys himself. He struggles with abandonment issues, sure, but he also embraces being a hero and dare I say it, knows how to have fun. When he saves a submarine crew from a pirate raid, you can tell he likes kicking ass. And when he’s introduced to his Atlantean culture, he is as in awe of its exotic beauty as the rest of us.
Arthur Curry is a superpowered man of the people. He doesn’t act like a guy who seen it all before, and he doesn’t whine about wanting to be normal like everyone else. He helps the helpless with a big ol’ grin on his face. This is the rare superhero who realizes life is short and wants to live every moment to the fullest. You can’t say that about most of his fellow Justice Leaguers.
If a hero is only as good as his villain than this series has plenty of room to grow. Wilson is fine but ultimately forgettable as King Orm. And this is where the film drops the ball. Orm has the makings of a sympathetic villain à la Black Panther’s Killmonger. Orm and his people have valid reasons for attacking land dwellers, but the script never bothers to explore the moral gray area behind his reasoning. Wilson delivers a campy performance that lacks substance, but so does most of the cast. Chalk this up to the script serving up a buffet of verbal turds.
Aquaman’s archnemesis Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is the character that shows the most promise, but his origin story feels shoehorned into the picture. First off, Black Manta looks bad-ass, and it’s incredible that costume designer Kym Barrett made Manta’s signature helmet work. Abdul-Mateen II plays the character as a one-dimensional fireball of rage, and he feels like a worthy adversary to Arthur. He’s as smart as he is deadly, crafting his suit from reverse-engineered Atlantean tech. But this movie does the bare minimum to flesh out the character; the goal is to set him up for future sequels. The film left me wanting more Black Manta, and I can’t wait to see how they use the character from here on out.
You won’t find many movies that can match Aquaman’s level of spectacle. Visually, this picture is underwater Avatar. It’s packed with stunning fairy-tale images ripped from the pages of a comic book. In one scene, Princes Mera wears a gown made of bioluminescent jellyfish, and in another, a giant octopus plays a set of drums. Wan establishes a fantastical tone early on so that not even a pink-haired Dolph Lundgren riding a seahorse seems out of place.
What really stands out are the film’s action sequences. The best set pieces, which take place on land, are showstoppers. Don Burgess’ nimble cinematography always finds the most compelling angle to capture the action. There is a wild tracking shot early on that is right up there with Batman’s warehouse beatdown in Batman v Superman. Black Manta and Aquaman’s showdown, which takes place in an Italian village, ranks among the best action sequences of the year. As they face off, the camera slips back and forth between their brawl and a Princess Mera chase sequence. It’s here where you can really see Wan applying the skills he honed on Furious Seven.
The final confrontation devolves into hundreds of CGI characters making “pew pew pew,” and that’s been done ad nauseam in comic book movies. The action is never better than when the characters are landlocked, and those moments are so thrilling and inventive that you tolerate the less inventive bits.
Wan deserves some type of award for his unlikely accomplishment. He took a character who for decades existed in pop culture as a punchline and placed him at heart of a $200 million-a-film franchise. Sure, some credit goes to the casting guru who went outside the box to sign Momoa before Batman v Superman. But casting a handsome, charismatic man is the easy part. Wan faced the Herculean task of refining Arthur Curry into a hero that could carry a 2 ½ hour movie while rolling out the comic’s underwater-Lord of the Rings mythology. And Wan did it all with a cast working against green screens while strung up in harnesses and freezing their asses off in water tanks. It’s a small miracle that Aquaman works at all.
With a tighter script, better chemistry between the cast, and more nuanced villains, this movie could have been something special. And still, from beginning to end, Aquaman is big dumb fun. It doesn’t dare take itself seriously, and it’s a better movie for it. Momoa creates an empathetic everyman within Arthur’s bluster and machismo, so his tough guy schtick never gets old. He’s a hero that knows how to have a good time, and it’s a blast watching him do so.
Bottom Line: Director James Wan blends globe-hopping adventure and blockbuster-level action with Aquaman’s rich comic book mythology to create a second-tier popcorn flick. And that’s fine. Not every comic book movie strives to explore the depths of the genre, some just want to be splashy.