You have to wonder if the Aquaman appearances in the earlier DC Universe films partially served as a taste test for Warner Bros. How would audiences respond to this version of the classic DC Comics character? Could they make a solo film in a way that avoided being as cheesy as a stick of Velveeta? Would Jason Momoa’s beefy, burly charm win over comics fanboys and general DCU skeptics?
Here’s the thing, if you’re already dug in against DC’s refusal to mirror Marvel by doing superhero movies their own way, “Aquaman” probably won’t change your mindset. If you’re a fan of the DCU or if you come at this without a particular bend, then “Aquaman” offers up enough offbeat humor, deep-sea action, and overall craziness to keep you locked in and entertained.
An Aquaman movie has been in various stages of production for nearly 10 years before director James Wan took the helm. Wan’s specialty is horror having made the original “Saw”, two “Insidious” movies, and “The Conjuring” series. But this isn’t the first time he has stepped outside of the genre. In 2015 he directed the seventh “Fast and Furious” installment. “Aquaman” posed a bigger challenge considering the very nature of the character, where’s he’s from, etc. And that’s not counting the $200 million price tag. No pressure.
Wan’s “Aquaman” is incredibly ambitious and he’s juggling a ton of moving parts. Perhaps his best decision was in not making this a traditional superhero origin movie. The backstory of Momoa’s Arthur Curry is told in a few small chunks scattered throughout the film. It’s a sweet and heartfelt tale of a lonely human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) who rescues and then falls in love with an exiled princess from the underwater city of Atlantis (played by a very good Nicole Kidman). It was a forbidden love resulting in the birth of a child, Arthur, but doomed by Atlantean tradition and intolerance.
Arthur grew up an outcast among the surface people and shunned as a “half-breed” by the Atlanteans. Along the way we learn of other things that has long fueled his disdain for his ocean-dwelling kin. This makes the appearance of Mera (Amber Heard) hard for him swallow. She tells Arthur of his power hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) who works to persuade the seven underwater tribes to wage war against the surface. The only way to stop him? For a reluctant Arthur to return to Atlantis and claim the throne from Orm.
From there the enormous scope of the film is mind-blowing. Is it too big? Yes, probably so. Should it have been trimmed down with a tighter focus? I honestly don’t know. That’s because part of what I liked about “Aquaman” is the sheer audacity of the whole thing. Wan’s story spans the coasts of Maine, the Sicilian seaside (where we get a thrilling and wonderfully shot action sequence – the film’s best), and even the Sahara desert.
And of course there is Atlantis itself, a pulsating world of the ancient and modern; filled with underwater societies, mythical creatures, saddled sea horses and armored sharks, talking crustaceans, and even Dolph Lundgren as a tribal King. It’s so preposterous yet bizarrely remarkable. Wan goes for it full throttle with an unrestrained imagination and a fantastical point of view. He ends up giving us a trademark of good fantasy – a fresh movie landscape, rich with its own history and filled with locations for (potential) future films to explore.
And of course there is the intensely committed cast starting with Momoa. There couldn’t be a better fit for the surly beefcake Arthur – a pain in the butt yet an infectiously enjoyable one. Momoa shines both in personality and physicality. He’s clearly having a good time whether twirling a trident or winking at his sex appeal. Heard, Wilson, and Kidman all manage their characters well. We even get a fun Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s secret Atlantean mentor. Also Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is intriguing as Black Manta, a character I wanted to see more of.
“Aquaman” walks the delicate line between poking fun at itself and treating its story seriously. It’s not an easy thing to do, but when done well it makes for a fun and satisfying genre piece. It’s still very much a superhero movie. You’ll see it hitting several familiar story beats and it doesn’t deviate far from the general structure these films use. But it’s Wan’s attention to his characters and imaginative world-building that makes it work. But those who by nature dismiss or rebel against ‘too much’ CGI, I can see them pushing back against “Aquaman” as well.
The publicity tour for “Aquaman” has been a hoot and no one can say Momoa isn’t comfortable in his own skin. His interviews and appearances have all been fun and lively. The same can be said for his movie. “Aquaman” is an oddly satisfying blast. It’s nothing groundbreaking or highly original, but it is a movie that embraces its weirdness in a way I really appreciated. And while it’s stuffed to gills with action (including what may be my favorite action sequence of the year), it has a little more to say than some will give it credit for. Ultimately “Aquaman” is a sea-worthy DCU installment; the most unlikely superhero to pull off, yet James Wan does just that.
VERDICT – 4 STARS