After decades being the butt of easy jokes, Aquaman has finally gotten his own movie. Even this year’s Teen Titans Go! to the Movies made a slam on him: “If Aquaman can get a movie, anybody can.”
Thanks to the bearded charisma of Jason Momoa and big action from director James Wan, one could argue this hero is cool at last. That’s definitely what the movie seems to be going for as it overloads on the action, adventure, fantasy, and big battles as if it’s trying to overcompensate, making sure the audience will have legitimate fun and thrills with a man who can communicate with sea life.
Wan keeps the movie constantly moving. If the exposition starts to gets too long, he switches it up with a quick and smoothly transitioned flashback and caps off the conversation with an explosion. Frantic, perhaps, but this pacing helps keep the Lord of the Rings–sized lore here, with its tale of kingdoms and lineage, in perspective. We learn quickly that Arthur Curry (Momoa) was born from the secret union of an Atlantian princess (Nicole Kidman) and an average lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison). His mother having returned to kingdom alone to keep her boy safe, Arthur grows up as a part-time hero who specializes in saving ships from pirates, getting home before happy hour starts to have a beer with his old man.
Bar brawls are put on hold when the underwater kingdoms are prepare for a war with the surface world. Atlantis, whose throne our hero denies himself, is now under the control of Arthur’s slick-haired half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson). Sharing a similar and messy lineage with Arthur, he wants revenge and he wants it now, not content to stand around and convince the other underwater kingdoms to join him. Those doubting him either don’t desire war or are too bloodthirsty to be bothered with an alliance. Of course, Orm wants power and knows that being the leader of an invasion will make him the Ocean Master. Arthur can skip all the diplomacy, however, if he can just find a golden trident and rule the oceans as the more rightful king. If he wants to. Maybe the lovely Atlantian Mera (Amber Heard), with her vibrant red hair and astounding abilities to control water, can push him towards the throne.
If this all sounds too tough to track, with the ancient artifacts, the mythos of Atlantis, and the feuding kingdoms of kings and crabs, fear not. Wan has pared down this bulky fantasy just enough to ensure that what could be a four-hour epic comes in at a pleasing 143 minutes of action and adventure. In doing so, however, the tone jumps all over the place to present a more satisfying patchwork of a movie than a complete one. When Arthur takes his first trip to Atlantis with Mera, it’s a dazzling neon landscape of jellyfish structures and stingray starships that looks and feels as though someone shoved the world of Tron into an aquarium. When the two go treasure hunting in the desert, the tone shifts to silly adventure clichés, complete with ancient ruins, dusty traps, and a comical tone. And when we arrive at the movie’s obligatory big battle, it’s a raging war of sea creatures eating each other and armored warriors shooting lasers, aspiring to be grander than the Battle of Helm’s Deep.
The movie works, however, and a big reason why is its refusal to excuse or turn away from the sillier aspects of Aquaman, embracing both the franchise’s classic style and its lore with more winks than jabs. By the second act, just about all the characters have embraced their outlandish costumes. Consider the side villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), eager to kill Aquaman after the latter let Manta’s pirate father drown in a sinking ship. He’s not afraid to strap on that big helmet with the massive eyes so he can shoot big blasts of red at his enemy. Orm is willing to strap on his Power Rangers–style mask to go into battle because he’s all about the tradition. Even Arthur himself will embrace that classic orange-and-green outfit. But I also loved how much inspiration the movie takes from Geoff Johns’s run on the comic-book character, given familiar shots of Arthur encountering the Trench and the clever use of Mera’s powers. Think about it: Mera has the power to take water from bodies and manipulate it at her will, like a bad-ass Gi from Captain Planet. This makes her a very powerful person on the surface world, and she does indeed use her powers well here.
Wan has fun with keeping things earnest even when he plays up the dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I can dig on all the crazy creatures under the sea that snarl about politics, but am I really supposed to believe that Arthur can knowingly quote Jules Verne but not be aware that Pinocchio was a book before it was a movie?
Even with an overblown and overly expensive production that packs in so much—including Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s mentor, Dolph Lundgren as a bearded king, and Julie Andrews as the greatest monster of the deep—I must admit that Aquaman stands out as the big, shiny, and more fun film of the rocky DC Cinematic Universe. It has a lot of familiar beats and even gets a little too caught up in its visual splendor at times but showcases so many unique worlds and visual effects unlike any other superhero film out there. The movie never settles on a definitive tone, jumping from neon ’80s wonder to fantasy epic to horror on a boat to an adventurous chase for MacGuffins, but it sure has a fun time trying to find it. So, yeah, Aquaman is cool now—at least for those who only knew him through Super Friends.