An Aquaman movie was always going to be a challenge. You cannot produce a film that features an entire underwater humanoid society, complete with fantastical marine animals, and led by a guy who communicates with said animals telepathically, without running the risk of looking at least a little silly. Thankfully, director James Wan (Insidious, The Conjuring), working from a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, and a story by Wan, Beall and comic scribe Geoff Johns, makes the wise decision to lean hard into the ridiculousness of this outlandish premise. The story gets tripped up by pages of exposition and relies on some pretty stale dialogue, but all in all, it accomplishes a lot: distinctive, eye-popping visuals and a charismatic lead performance carry a swashbuckling tale of destiny and political unrest, which all amount to a spectacular whale of a tale, the kind an old fisherman might tell to wide-eyed youngsters.
The film opens with a prologue seemingly out of a fairytale: the forbidden love between a humble lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and a fugitive queen (Nicole Kidman) from the underwater empire of Atlantis. The pair’s love results in a son, before the queen is forced to return to her aquatic kingdom in order to keep her love and their child safe from Atlantian aggression. The boy grows into a powerful, unstoppable vigilante named Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), whose anonymous feats of heroism on the high seas earn him the media-born moniker of Aquaman. Destiny, in the form of a desperate Princess Mera (Amber Heard), calls upon Arthur to venture to Atlantis, where he must find a legendary trident in order to prevent his half-brother, King Orm (frequent Wan collaborator Patrick Wilson), from declaring war upon all ocean-polluting land-dwellers (hence, the entire surface world). Complicating matters for our hero is the bloodthirsty pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), harboring a personal grudge against Aquaman.
Challenge number one for this film was Aquaman himself, a classic comic book hero who, over the decades, has become the butt of countless jokes regarding his usefulness as a superhero, at least in the context of the larger superhero pantheon; Superman can fly and is bulletproof, Batman is the world’s greatest detective / vigilante, while Aquaman . . . can talk to fish. Compounding this reputation for lameness was the character’s uninspired look: a blonde-haired Buster Crabbe knockoff in a plain, orange and green diving suit. Casting the tall, tattooed, Hawaiian-born Jason Momoa, whose beard and wild mane of hair make him resemble a human lion, and who has built a career out of playing vicious bruisers, went a long way toward reinventing Arthur Curry. His hard-drinking, dudebro swagger made his Aquaman one of the best things about last year’s tonally uneven Justice League, and Momoa continues that same rough rider persona here, adding in humility and affection for his lonely father to nice effect. Kudos to Momoa and the filmmakers for bringing Aquaman into the 21st century and making him a hero who matters.
The second challenge was considerably more daunting: creating an entire humanoid world existing and thriving deep beneath the surface of the ocean. This is the most ambitious production to portray such a setting, and, despite the serious tone of previous DC film efforts like Man of Steel, staid and somber was not going to fly here. The art department swung for the fences on this: from warring soldiers astride giant sea horses and armored sharks, to jellyfish being used as formalwear accessories, the attention to artistic detail is next-level. The fully realized Atlantis and all its surrounding environs are outrageous and jaw-dropping to take in, made even more so by the neon-lit palette. And as for costume design, do not expect austere, Asgardian sci-fi-vikingwear or sumptuous, Wakandan Afro-futurist couture; the armor, the royal togs and all other vestments are bright, occasionally scaly and often candy-colored, dispensing with any influence by any oxygen-breathing culture.
The story is strong enough, and in spite of the over-the-top visuals, Wan and co. clearly respect the characters and their journey. However, things get soggy in the dialogue department. Will Beall, he of the tin-eared Gangster Squad, got his hands on the script, so right off the bat the film was in a bit of trouble. At its worst, Aquaman sounds like a Stephen Somers joint like The Mummy (Brendan Fraser edition) or Van Helsing, where people toss off quips that are not nearly as clever as they think they are. And poor Amber Heard is saddled with an unforgivable amount of exposition, reducing Mera to a very pretty encyclopedia in some spots. Speaking of Mera, the screenplay stumbles the most when it awkwardly tries to develop the relationship between her and Arthur; there’s nothing Heard and Momoa say to each other that hasn’t been heard a thousand times before, and it takes the air out of each actor’s performance every time they interact, reducing Momoa to a fratboy trying hard to not try so hard with the girl he’s crushing on.
The villains fare much better with this dialogue, as both Wilson and Abdul-Mateen take their mustache-twirling cues from the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin School Of Villainy; yes, they’re a bit over the top, but each breathes humanity into these scoundrels and makes some interesting choices while in scenery-chewing mode (ironically, Dafoe, as Arthur’s mentor Vulko, is the calmest, most level-headed character in this movie). Wilson, in particular, is an intriguing choice to play Orm, since he possesses the looks of the comic book iteration of Aquaman, and is playing someone who feels threatened at the prospect of being unseated by a newer, more badass lord of the seven seas. Lastly, Dolph Lundgren, as Mera’s duplicitous father Nereus, is having a great year, between this and Creed II, finding his groove in playing imposing yet nuanced antagonists.
If I had to compare Aquaman to an older film, I’d have to say it is, ultimately, an underwater remake of the 1980 Flash Gordon; it’s dumb and cheesy in parts, but, importantly, it knows it’s dumb and cheesy, and revels in it. Come on, how seriously can one take aquatic soldiers riding big ol’ sea horses? Bottom line is, Aquaman is bright, loud, brash, and ridiculous, and in being so, makes every attempt, and largely succeeds, at entertaining your flippers off.
Now see what She Said.