Home is calling.
Director James Wan’s big screen version of DC’s venerable and much-mocked seafaring superhero lives at the intersection of camp and pulp, and that’s as it should be.
Starring the bro-homie-filled Jason Momoa as an Aquaman who, well, looks like Jason Momoa, this latest addition to the DC Extended Universe (dysfunctional) family of films, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have much in common with its four-color forebear except for a name and a concept — after all, the big guy at the center of this CGI spectacle bears little resemblance to the blonde and square-jawed Super Friends also-ran of popular imagination, whose superpowers include ‘talks to fish’ and ‘looks like a dork.’ However, keener examination reveals that the oceanic epic cleaves closely to its roots.
That manifests in what some are viewing as silliness but is really just the tonal inconsistency that superhero comics are heir to. Aquaman makes a merit out of what could be perceived as a flaw; rather than settle on one mood — and let’s thank our lucky stars that tone wasn’t a post-Nolan swing at ‘realism’ in a movie about a guy who swims fast — Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Orphan (2009), and Will Beall, Gangster Squad (2013), (with story assist from comics scribe Geoff Johns) embrace as many as they can, giving the film a wonderful free-wheeling, anything goes Silver Age comics flavor. Superhero film? Pulpy globetrotting adventure? Dynastic epic fantasy? Even, on the odd occasion, horror? The answer is yes.
It’s the epic fantasy stuff (Game of Shells?) that’s the main plot driver. Arthur ‘Aquaman’ Curry, sea-surfing superhero, is child to human lighthouse keeper Thomas (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantean Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who, after being washed ashore, shared a brief, passionate romance before she was summarily hauled back to the undersea kingdom to do her duty. Child of two worlds and at home in neither (although he does enjoy a Guinness or six), Arthur indulges in some standard fare heroics — he’s trained as a teen by Atlantan advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) — until visited by Mera (Amber Heard), princess of another subaquatic nation (there are several). She clues him in that his half-brother Orm, aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), is keen to unite all the water kingdoms so that he can declare war on the surface for all their polluting and such. Arthur needs to return to Atlantis and contest the throne, lest the dry lands of the world be lost to soggy annihilation.
Complicating matters are a secondary villain in the shape of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s ruthless pirate Black Manta, who has much more parochial dreams of vengeance (Aquaman left his father to die, and we’ll circle back around to that in due time); the need to track down the fabled Trident of Atlan, first King of Atlantis (which gives us our Indiana Jones-like world-spanning McGuffin Quest); and anything else the powers that be can think to jam into the mix, because Aquaman the Movie believes in value for money.
The whole thing rollicks along nicely, only occasionally dragging its feet to deliver some pontification or portentous dialogue (it does overdo it with the voiceover narration, though), and while there are some spectacular action set pieces — Wan is a canny enough player not to waste the promise inherent in shark cavalry — it’s really all down to Momoa, whose undeniable charisma anchors the whole circus. Ever confused by the slightly-too-convoluted plot, or perturbed by the film’s tonal lurches? Look at Momoa — if he’s having a good time, you should be, too.
And he is always having a ball. His take on Aquaman may bear almost no similarity to any prior comics or small screen incarnation, but he’s the perfect Momoa Aquaman, if that makes sense — of the possible interpretations of this character by this actor, the one we got is the best of all possible worlds. The big man’s sheer delight at headlining a tentpole film is palpable, and he’s working so hard to entertain that he pretty much drags everyone else along in his wake, setting both the pace and the tone with an arched eyebrow and a cheesy one-liner in his very first appearance.
That tone, as mentioned, is both pulp and camp — Aquaman is not afraid to embrace its own ludicrousness, and in doing so opens up whole realms of possibility that more serious movies could never access. It’s hard to imagine how this thing would jibe with the stentorian angst of Zack Snyder’s contributions to the onscreen DC Universe.
Thanks to a remarkably laissez-faire approach to realism we get oceans brimming with magical creatures, toothsome monsters, jostling kingdoms, and pirate treasure seemingly piled in every spare corner. We get Dolph Lundgren going regal as yet another underwater king — and his Masters of the Universe (1987), like Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980), is an obvious camp touchstone here — and, in Black Manta, one of the most page-accurate and goofy-cool supervillains ever realized on screen. We get an Atlantis where seemingly every vehicle is pushed, pulled or towed by sharks, giant seahorses, remnant dinosaurs, whales, or jumbo sea turtles because, dammit, an Atlantis without those things is a far more boring place. We even get a sequence of pretty great Lovecraftian horror when the nighttime ocean comes boiling to life with a school of Deep One-looking monsters known as The Trench. And, oh, there’s a ton of wicked Easter Eggs, too, including Randall Park as Dr. Stephen Shin, Wan’s Annabelle doll, which can be spotted sitting atop a heap of underwater garbage, and a cameo by regular collaborator-pal Leigh Whannell.
With all that on offer, asking Aquaman to make sense seems like ingratitude.
There are fumbles, to be sure. This Aquaman is a little too blasé about taking life. Black Manta is only after his hide because Arthur refuses to save his dad (Michael Beach), while the climax wastes hundreds of mer-people rather needlessly, and these are both things that our hero could have prevented without going too far out of his way. An early environmental theme is quickly jettisoned, which is a shame — a strong real-world political message at the core of all this delicious nonsense would have worked wonders without slowing things down, if handled correctly. And there are times, it must be said, when some of the supporting cast fail to engage in quite the intended spirit, leading to a few flat line readings and a few glazed expressions here and there (lookin’ at you, Dafoe).
But Aquaman is still a riot. That doesn’t mean it’s suited to every taste — it may not do what you want it to, but it does exactly what it wants to, and it does it with such charming bombast that you’d have to make a conscious effort not to be swept along.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson