Any time my dad and I discussed Aquaman, our conversation tended to reflect the eras we best knew him from as a character. He, a veteran of the Super Friends era, always referenced the “talks to fish” line that made Aquaman the butt of many DC jokes while questioning the extent of his power’s outreach, like whether Aquaman can control lakes. I, on the other hand, watched the character grow through modern DC cartoons and video games (most notably his breakthrough incarnation in Batman: The Brave and the Bold) into something between an adventurer, conflicted king and underwater badass. Because when you get right down to it, there are far too many aspects of Aquaman’s character that prevent him from being “useless.”
Consider this: as king of Atlantis, Aquaman holds legal ownership over two thirds of Planet Earth. He can travel through water at speeds faster than a torpedo, lift submarines out from the water and wield a very sharp trident against foes. And yes, he can reach out to fish, effectively summoning an army of sharks, octopi, manta rays and whatever else lies dormant beneath the sea to beat his adversaries into submission. Needless to say, this is a silly character that you don’t want to degrade in or out of the water. And somehow 2018’s Aquaman, the latest entry in the rather uneven DC Extended Universe, pulls off this characterization really damn well at the expense of a somewhat bloated script.
DC fans got a glimpse into Jason Momoa’s laid back dude-bro Aquaman in Justice League, but this new film further progresses his growth from reluctant hero to king of Atlantis. The son of lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a member of Atlantean royalty, Arthur grew up an outcast on land and dismissed by the long-forgotten underwater culture as a “half-breed.” Having become something of a surface-world celebrity, Arthur helps when he can but shows no desire to claim any royal birthright, citing his disgust at the culture’s sacrificial treatment of his mother for her “crimes.” That is until he’s confronted by the red-haired Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) who warns Arthur of an upcoming war against humanity led by his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) and her father King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), something that requires the majority backing of Atlantis’ seven kingdoms. The one way to stop this future ‘Ocean Master’: Arthur taking his rightful place as heir to the throne, namely by finding the lost trident of Atlantis’ first king as proof of his potential worthiness.
The “returning lost heir” plot has admittedly been done before- think a reverse Black Panther mixed with the second half of The Lion King. Aquaman is probably aware of this familiarity but goes all in anyway, indulging in its B-movie charm with no shame and a gleeful embrace of the absurdity. It’s a meant to be a Shakespearean drama with political factions, cultural exposition dumps and self-reflective brooding from a hero torn over his mixed heritage. All of this mostly works thanks to the supporting cast, especially Patrick Wilson, chewing their dialogue with a conviction that never feels too goofy nor overtly bleak a la Batman v. Superman. It’s also a movie where Atlantean soldiers fight in underwater battle suits atop sharks and sea horses, communicate via water holograms, and features a Lovecraftian sea monster voiced by Julie Andrews. You’ll have a serious debate justifying Atlantis’ retaliation for humanity’s polluting ways one second, followed by a blast of B-movie spectacle that eschews socio-political topics for “hell yeah!”
Despite the occasional moment of straight-up camp, I’d argue this tone was the right course of action for a superhero whose pop culture image has always teetered between mocking and a self-serious rejection of the mockery. However, this doesn’t change the fact that, at nearly two and a half hours long, director James Wan incorporates a boatload of story into Aquaman that feels padded in places. A subplot concerning pirate-turned supervillain David Kane (i.e. Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who seeks revenge on Arthur for his father’s death, simultaneously stands out as memorable and tacked on in the broader context of the movie. Certain plot details involving Arthur’s tutelage under Atlantean advisor Vulko (a surprisingly non-evil Willem Dafoe), learning about Atlantis’ culture and bonding with Mera all follow a similar path: you understand their purpose, but their execution suggests that something should have been cut. It’s one of those feelings that a moviegoer can recognize, even when they can’t pinpoint the exact moments of cinematic excess.
It helps that, on a visual level, Aquaman is stunning. Perhaps it’s due to his tenure in horror entries like Insidious and The Conjuring, but Wan has an eye for color palettes and uses them to the fullest extent. Seeing Atlantis for the first time is quite eye-popping, mixing worn Greco-Roman architecture, neon-luminescent flora and fantastical future tech to create an environment on par with Marvel’s Wakanda. Even the costume department succeeds at adapting some of the more ludicrous elements of Aquaman comic books, from Black Manta and Ocean Master’s helmets to the protagonist’s iconic orange and green scale armor that somehow doesn’t look as silly on-screen as one would think. Unfortunately little time is devoted to exploring the day-to-day life of Atlantis, keeping the city mainly as a background spectacle while Arthur and Mera globetrot their way around surface-dwelling locations like the Sahara desert and Italy. And for the climactic final battle, however, let’s just say that the VFX department took every insane fan concept of “underwater battle” and cranked that up to eleven.
The action scenes, by comparison, are a mixed bag of intense choreography and questionable camerawork. It’s never appalling to watch, but a handful of fights in the first act use so many quick cuts that the fight experience as a whole becomes disorienting. Later entries seem to rectify this decision by adopting the opposite approach, utilizing various tracking shots that circle Arthur and Mera as they take down armored Atlantean’s while running away from new ones. It reminds me a bit of how special effects on the CW’s DC shows operate: keep the action vibrant and in motion so you won’t recognize the noticeable CGI flaws. The fact that these scenes excited me in spite of their flaws, especially during a tense fight/rooftop chase between Arthur, Mera and Black Manta in Sicily, suggests that Wan’s strategy worked.
And at the center of it all is Jason Momoa: bearded, mostly shirtless and confidently standing at an imposing 6’ 4” height. Even if he has a limited acting range, Momoa uses his laid back swagger to make every scene work, from the dry comedy to the bombastic action to even quieter moments where he contemplates the political chaos sprung from his birth. Paired alongside Heard’s Mera, who proves equally dynamic in her hydrokinesis abilities and comedic banter (and, in a scene my dad would love, makes effective use of the former in a winery), his journey exudes an emotional weight that, while nowhere close to Wonder Woman, still fits this incarnation of the character. Even if he isn’t the worthiest man for the job, Arthur’s willingness to protect everyone, regardless of where they stand in the conflict, gives him the vibe of a likable and compelling hero. Quite simply, he’s the reason I watched a fully armored Aquaman brandish his trident aboard a war-seahorse while commanding an army of undersea creatures- the epitome of a Super Friends joke- and walked away thinking “this guy is a badass.”
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Aquaman is hardly a perfect superhero movie, especially compared to last week’s stellar release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But it’s big, loud, over the top and campy in just the right combination that feels fun rather than aggravating. This is one of those films that asks you not to question the logical progression of events and simply let the spectacle play out, for better and for worse. And, as “outrageous” as it seems that Aquaman of all characters would breath new confidence into the DCEU, any media that makes me want to see more Aquaman is doing something right.