Directed by James Wan
Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson
The movies produced by the DC Extended Universe has had a hit-and-miss record in its post-Dark Knight chapter. So I am pleased to report that if you were to put DC movies after the Christopher Nolan era on a spectrum—with Wonder Woman being an unqualified success on one end and Suicide Squad on the other for being a total suckfest—then Aquaman would be ranked a few notches below Princess Diana of Themyscira.
If there is a point to be notched against director James Wan’s interpretation of the origin story of the Protector of the Seas, it’s that it is all over the place—literally and tonally. 2017’s Justice League reimagined Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) as a long-haired Mister Universe runner-up with a rock star attitude, but in his first solo adventure we learn that underneath Arthur’s biker swagger lies a boy still grappling with abandonment issues. He is the product of the union between a human father (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). His royal mother is forced to leave when foot (fin?) soldiers from her kingdom decimate their light-house abode trying to haul her back. Years later, Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) invokes his status as first-born heir to the throne to stop Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) from consolidating his position among the fractured kingdoms within Atlantis and waging war on the surface world. But first, Arthur must find the elusive Trident of Atlan to assert his power.
Aquaman is bursting with exposition. The story goes everywhere, hopscotching from Atlantis to the Sahara to Sicily as Arthur and Mera track down the Trident’s whereabouts, all while Orm makes his rounds among the fractured underwater realms in his whistle-stop tour to be declared “Ocean Master.” It all amounts to belabored world-building that can get soggy by the 60-minute mark. Is a flashback detailing the fall of Atlantis really necessary? Or even an explanation for why there’s a bridge to its underwater entrance?
That’s not counting the film’s clunky ecological message and its bonus villain, the high-tech pirate who will eventually become Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Aquaman’s villains get the lion’s share of the blame for the discrepancies in its tone; Arthur speaks in late-20th-century action hero jargon, but his adversaries glower under the weight of Shakespearean motivation. While Wonder Woman’s comedy is an offshoot of the innocence in her nature, the comedy in Aquaman stems from…the fact that Justice League established Arthur Curry as a wiseass. The result is wildly divergent dialogue, from profound (“Where I come from, the sea carries our tears away.” “Up here, you feel it.”) to goofy (“Your ship has been marinating in chum butter. I don’t want to come out smelling like swamp butt.”). The director also has the comic-geek habit of making his hero hold a smirk or a pose a split-second too long while electric guitars blare on the soundtrack, adding another layer of cheese to the proceedings.
Then we arrive at the last 30 minutes, and the sodden world-building pays off. Aquaman doesn’t scrimp on the spectacle of its climax, but it’s also one of those rare superhero movies where the final battle has lines that are clearly drawn, stakes that are clearly defined, and geography that’s efficiently mapped out. It all adds up: Once considered cheesy, Aquaman’s gold-and-green finned uniform now has gravity and significance. And once considered the DC Comics Universe’s most absurd superhero—so lame that HBO’s Entourage turned him into a running gag for many seasons—Arthur Curry is now having the last baritoned laugh.