Here’s the thing about the latest film based on a DC Comics superhero: it’s actually a lot of fun. Aquaman is not great—it’s barely even good—but it’s a great deal of silly, preposterous, splashy fun, with a fascinating degree of world-building that is rarely seen outside of the Star Wars universe or higher-end animated films.
And something about the film’s energy—most of which comes right from the heart and soul of lead actor Jason Momoa—plus its larger-than-life visuals and epic, multi-tiered storytelling, won me over in a way I had not anticipated. In a way, it’s almost unfair to compare Aquaman to the best of the recent crop of DC films, Wonder Woman, which looks lean and mean compared to Aquaman. But under the direction of James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, Furious 7), this latest work feels the most like an actual comic book adventure, especially when considered next to its darker, grittier comrades (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Justice League, Suicide Squad). Sometimes, it is okay to embrace the fun.
I’m never been an advocate for having to shut off your brain to enjoy a film, and I’m not doing that now. Aquaman knows that it’s a big, dopey work that incorporates several different genres to tell its story. It’s a fantasy film, a treasure hunt movie, a love story, a road picture, an environmental message, and a Shakespearean-like tale of brothers fighting over a throne. Even if you don’t end up liking it, you can’t deny the film gives you your money’s worth.
The movie opens in two parts. The first involves the story of Aquaman’s birth as Arthur Curry, the son of Tom Curry, a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), and the queen of Atlantis, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who is rescued by Tom while trying to escape the undersea kingdom. The two fall in love and she gives birth to Arthur, but when he is still young, she is forced to return to Atlantis and leave her two great loves behind. As we find out through flashbacks scattered throughout the film, Arthur is trained in the warrior ways of Atlantis by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), a member of the king’s court but also a rogue mentor loyal to Arthur’s mother. He predicts that Arthur will one day come to Atlantis and wants him to be knowledgeable in the ways of his people.
The second part of the opening is set in the present. High-tech pirates are attempting to hijack a nuclear submarine and Arthur comes swimming to its rescue. In the process of shutting down the pirates, he leaves their leader (Michael Beach) to drown even as his son (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) tries to save him to no avail. At this early stage of the story, Arthur is no hero (or at least not a very good one), and as a result he sets off a chain of events that leads to the creation of one of his greatest enemies, Black Manta, who uses Atlantean technology (given to him by treacherous members of the court) to build a suit that makes him a serious threat to Aquaman.
I won’t go into unnecessary detail about the rest of the film’s plot. Arthur is persuaded by a princess of Atlantis named Mera (Amber Heard) to challenge his half-brother and current Atlantis ruler Orm (Wan regular Patrick Wilson) for the crown. Arthur is hesitant, but when Orm decides to organize all of the underwater kingdom for an assault on the surface world, Arthur agrees. There’s a particularly harrowing sequence in which Orm fires a first shot at the human world by having the ocean literally push all of its trash and warships onto the world’s shores as a not-so-subtle reminder of how much humans have dumped into the seas over the last couple hundred years. Not surprisingly, Arthur’s being a half-breed does not sit well with Orm, and the two enter a gladiator-like battle in Atlantis, in which Arthur is almost killed.
Wan’s vision of Atlantis is worth a lot of freeze-framing and detailed slo-motion examination. We get a pretty spectacular look at a city where direction and the concepts of up, down and sideways don’t really apply. I’ll admit, there were a few times when I sometimes got lost in watching how the Atlanteans move, drift and swim underwater, how some have their hair tied back tightly so it didn’t float around their face, but others wore regal headwear to keep their flowing locks away from their eyes. Yes, there’s also an octopus that plays drums, but there are more practical things like riding sharks like swimming horses or using giant sea turtles to pull cargo great distances. Very few Atlanteans can communicate with marine life, so the fact that Arthur can makes some believe he should be the one true king (or Ocean Master).
The movie wouldn’t be half as interesting without Momoa, who exudes fire and charm that eats up the screen and makes the more ridiculous moments seem plausible, if only because of his passionate reactions. Wilson is no slouch either, going toe to toe (fin to fin?) with Momoa in several scenes and matching him in terms of acting talent and broader performance. He knows what kind of movie he’s in, and he loves it. Co-writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall have clearly combed all versions of the Aquaman comics searching for the best stories in which to insert these two great characters.
Aquaman is fully loaded with great fight scenes and chase sequences, has two villains who are clearly the stars of their own movies and see themselves as the heroes of them, and an approach to visual effects that is clear, creative and impressive in its scale. And did I mention Dolph Lundgren plays a major supporting role as Mera kingly father, or that Julie Andrews voices an epic sea creature who becomes a part of Arthur’s final test to becoming king? As much as the DC cinematic universe is known for its darker qualities, this film is the franchise’s most family-friendly entry. If they can handle the longer running time, kids are going to eat this up. It’s easy to be cynical about such things, but director Wan is so good at reading the room and giving audiences exactly what it needs—whether that’s gruesome or terrifying horror, the need for speed or Aquaman riding into battle on a seahorse. The film is no masterpiece, but it is something of a party where every type of living creature on earth is invited to have fun.
Sometimes, that’s all you need.
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