Bright direction and epic action keeps watery superhero afloat
Directed by James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe
After years of concrete-colored, “grimdark” reiterations of The Dark Knight, each looking like an increasingly smudgy carbon copy of the previous one, Warner Bros. might have finally gotten a handle on translating DC Comics superheroes to the big screen. Patty Jenkins’ empowered 2017 take on Wonder Woman lit the way out of the darkness for WB/DC. And now James Wan’s bright and lively version of Aquaman follows up on the promise, delivering a film that is, above all, a boatload of fun.
Wan—who gave us clever, low-budget horror hits Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious and The Conjuring—steps up to the big-budget big leagues with this follow-up to 2017’s only partially successful Justice League. He takes most of his inspiration from crosstown rival Marvel’s Thor films. Aquaman is a similarly breezy blend of mythology and sci-fi, delivered to audiences with a winking sense of humor. Screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who penned a lot of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) & Will Beall (who cut his teeth on ABC’s “Castle”) had their work cut out for them. Aquaman is one of the least respected superhero creations in all of comicdom. Justice League did feature what was undoubtedly the coolest version of half-Altlantean avenger Arthur Curry. Actor Jason Momoa’s portrayal made him the film’s most buzzed-about character. But in all honesty, all he did was take off his shirt and dispense a handful of snarky quips.
Aquaman builds on that slim foundation, fleshing out the character and giving him a meatier backstory. Seems that Arthur is the offspring of a forbidden romance between lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (legendary New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison from Once Were Warriors and Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones) and exiled queen of Atlantis Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, further upping the “down under” contingent). Despite the fact that—as the queen’s firstborn son—he’s the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis, Arthur hates his watery homeland. Seems his mother was recaptured and executed by the Atlanteans when he was just a tadpole. Despite growing up in exile, Arthur was schooled, on the sly, in the ways of Atlantean warriors by wise old merman Vulko (Willem Dafoe).
As the self-styled oceanic defender Aquaman, Arthur is happy to battle the occasional high-tech pirate (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, making a memorable mark as the bloodthirsty Black Manta). But he wants nothing to do with Atlantean politics. Unfortunately for Arthur, fate washes up at his dad’s lighthouse one day when Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) appears. Seems she’s about to be married off to Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, doubling up on DC hero duty after playing Nite Owl in 2009’s Watchmen). Orm is on the edge of conquering the seven kingdoms of Atlantis, declaring himself “Ocean Master” and waging all-out war on the hated surface dwellers. With no other choice but to save humanity, Arthur reluctantly joins Mera on a round-the-world quest to locate a magical trident, which will secure Arthur’s position as the rightful king of Atlantis.
Aquaman spends most of its time swimming around in CGI waters. It’s clear where the film’s budget went, as there’s hardly a scene in the film untouched by special effects. The undersea kingdom of Atlantis looks like a bioluminescent Roger Dean album cover come to life. The dazzling architecture, fantastical costumes and bizarre creatures are a wonder to behold. Wan proves himself a capable big-budget filmmaker, handling the film’s countless epic sequences with skill and a dash of style (even if he does show a bit too much love for the old 360-degree spinny camera move). An underwater gladiator fight, a rooftop chase in seaside Italy and an all-out undersea war are among the film’s visual highlights.
If anything, Aquaman is too much of a good thing. At two hours and 23 minutes, it’s 50 percent Indiana Jones-style globe-hopping treasure hunt, 50 percent Star Wars-style epic battle scenes and 50 percent Superman-style mano-a-mano showdowns between musclemen. That adds up to roughly 50 percent too much film. But it is fun, fantastical and wildly ambitious. For a film about the watery abyss, Aquaman doesn’t exactly have a great deal of depth to it. But that’s not the worst crime for a popcorn movie. Wan at least is in touch with the project’s comic book origins and knows when to drop in a dash of cartoonish silliness without sinking into campy parody. This is a film made for 10-year-olds and the 10-year-old in all of us. By the time our hero Aquaman emerges triumphal in his traditional gold and green comic book garb, most folks will be on board for the whole, reckless, bombastic, rainbow-colored spectacle.