Actors: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Dolph Lundgren, Randall Park & Graham McTavish
Directors: James Wan
Writers: Geoff Johns, James Wan, Will Beall & David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick
Studio: Warner Bros.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (yes, this is an Aquaman review, stick with me) has been heralded for its innovative approach to animation, and justifiably so. The creative forces behind that animated piece of wonder have truly captured the color, dynamics and unrestrained energy of a comic book. While Spider-Verse felt novel and new, Aquaman, its comic-book-inspired brother and competitor at the theatre, feels thoroughly conventional — but in the best possible ways. This latest installment in the DC Cinematic Universe dazzles the eye with wondrous imagery and tickles the brain with its celebration of various fantastic genres. What the movie lacks is a sense of suspense — we know from the very start how the story will turn out — but surprisingly, the flick is strong enough to distract its audience from that. And at the foundation of the fun is a charismatic, everyman performance from Jason Momoa.
Mera, princess from one of seven Atlantean kingdoms, seeks out Arthur Curry, the bastard son of a lost Atlantean queen. With his royal birthright, he’s the only person on the planet who can avert a coming war between the united nations of the sea and the unsuspecting air-breathers of the surface world. Together, they must search the globe for a legendary object of power, but more importantly, Arthur, known by many as the heroic Aquaman, must discover his own sense of worth and a sense that he belongs in the underwater world that has spurned him his whole life.
While Aquaman obviously lacks the cultural and socio-political relevance of Black Panther, the two super-hero flicks definitely share something in common other than genre: a fantastic sense of wonder in the designs for the worlds they construct from whole cloth. The DayGlo undersea-scape of Atlantis is fascinating and delightfully detailed, from the advanced civilization that serves as a central background early in the film to the barnacle-encrusted, ancient sites of legend. The costuming is striking as well, but none more than the formal gown Mera dons for a key scene, evoking a jellyfish design.
Speaking of Mera, Amber Heard does a solid job in her portrayal — nothing outstanding, but capable. What’s striking about her role and that of Arthur’s mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), is how the filmmakers have ensured strong roles for women in a movie spotlighting an imposing specimen of masculinity. In fact, Mera and Atlanna are portrayed as far more resourceful, intelligent and skilled than the central hero of the story.
Like Spider-Verse, Aquaman does an excellent job of introducing a good number of new characters succinctly. Aside from the title character, the only other figure to see his backstory explored in any level of depth is Black Manta, and the movie does an excellent job of giving him a convincing motivation to play the villain while avoiding making him a likeable figure. The story of Manta’s armor and laser helmet is great, and I found his main action sequence in the Manta role to be supremely cool to watch. The montage of him fashioning the armor was unnecessary, though, and the attempt to bring some humor to those brief scenes was awkward and ill-advised.
Patrick Wilson is an unusual actor, in that I’ve never found him to be particularly dynamic, but he’s managed to make that work for him. For example, his quiet, unassuming nature served his portrayal of the awkward and anxious Nite Owl in Watchmen. But as a charismatic king? I just didn’t buy him. Cold and calculating, sure, but he’s built up as something of a populist in this story, and he just doesn’t have the presence to pull that off.
The screenwriters and director James Wan give up on any pretension about the conventional nature of this story. The climactic moment when the title character appears in his familiar orange and green costume was given away in the advance promotional material; he even sports it in the movie poster. It’s a wise move on their part. Aquaman is iconic enough that the traditional outfit is something for which fans have been clamoring. By giving away that turn, the filmmakers are signalling they’re willing to give audiences what they want, and instead of spoiling something, it serves as a reason to get seats in theatres. All indications are that it’s working. The plot is a predictable one, even early on in the first act, but it’s a satisfying one. Most plot elements are telegraphed, but there’s such a sense of fun and adventure, the audience is happy to come along. It’s like a roller coaster; those on the ride can see exactly where the track is headed, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the thrills.
I saw the movie in 3D, and as is usually the case, I didn’t find it added much to the experience other than three bucks to my ticket price. The effects overall are impressive, notably how they make actors appear as though they’re underwater for much of the picture. I love how their hair and clothing flow in the current, how people rarely walk around and instead propel themselves around a room with their hands.
My one main problem with this movie was the muddled state of Atlantean politics. We hear of seven Atlantean nations, but for some arbitrary reason, only four are needed to come together to wage war against the surface world; it’s not at all clear why that’s the case. Furthermore, we see Orm manipulate one of the nations to join his cause willingly, while he employs conquest to bring the other two into the fold. The script glosses over these elements, and the disconnect nagged at me.
Of all the DC movies to be released in the wake of the success of Marvel Studios, this is the first that felt like it had tapped into the same sort of energy, personality and imagination. Just as so many Marvel movies merge their super-hero stories with another genre, Aquaman appears to do the same… but with multiple genres. It offers the epic fantasy of Lord of the Rings, the familial sci-fi of Star Wars, the horror of Aliens, the globe-trotting archaeology action of Raiders of the Lost Ark or National Treasure and the immense scope of a kaiju battle worthy of a Godzilla flick. A patchwork of influences play out on the big screen, and it keeps the movie feeling fresh and fun. The two-hour, 23-minute run time moved along at a fast clip.
Of course, all of these strengths found in Aquaman would’ve been for naught if its star didn’t command our attention, but fortunately, Jason Momoa is more than equal to the task. Obviously, his physical stature and appearance are riveting; he represents a seemingly impossible amalgam of beauty and brutality. But his performance, while far from award-worthy, is undeniably entertaining. His blue-collar cachet and mischievous spark make him eminently watchable as an actor. Just as Robert Downey Jr. did with Tony Stark a decade ago, Momoa brings an attitude and swagger to Arthur Curry that will keep audiences coming back for more. 7/10