Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson,
Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman
Screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beal
Directed by James Wan
Out of Four
Aquaman is nobody's favorite superhero. Oh sure, plenty of others have been referred to that way, but for Aquaman, it's pretty much his defining characteristic. His reputation for dorkiness has long made him primarily a punchline in popular culture. The strange dichotomy of modern fandom is that are still likely to be a lot of people throwing hissy fits over Warner Bros and DC making changes to the character's traditional persona, especially since the ethnic makeover involved in casting Jason Momoa smacks of the dreaded "political correctness" so feared by a section of fanboys. As such, this is a character that is inherently challenging to make the center of his own big screen epic, and the poor reputation of the DC Extended Universe doesn't exactly help. The good news is that James Wan's Aquaman is a mostly entertaining (if overlong and excessively bombastic) superhero spectacular which avoids the oppressive dreariness of some other DC entries. The bad news is its not a game changer: it's another DC movie that does some things well but doesn't entirely come together, and it still leaves a lot of uncertainty as to where things go from here. It's considerably more fun than Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it's nowhere near the triumph that was Patty Jenkin's Wonder Woman.
The film begins with an extended flashback to the meeting of Aquaman's parents, a lighthouse keeper named Curry (Temura Morrison) and the magical Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). It's a pretty standard boy meets and loses magical fish queen story, and the result is young Arthur, a child who is neither entirely man nor fish, and you're getting the idea why this is such a challenging character aren't you? After a short look at Arthur's childhood, we're back to where we were in Justice League, with Arthur acting as a high seas vigilante superhero, but feeling he doesn't entirely belong anywhere. This is the cue for the return of Mera (Amber Heard) the beautiful ocean princess who briefly appeared in one of Justice League's more confusing scenes, imploring Arthur to return to his true home under the sea (sadly, there is no musical number) and assume his place as the rightful ruler of Atlantis. From here Aquaman gets the chance to embrace what makes it stand out from other superhero films, its creation of a genuinely new world that's distictively different from anything we've seen before in Marvel or DC. In terms of logic world building it's not especially strong, but it certainly offers some spectacular visuals that give the CGI team a lot to play with and nicely fill the IMAX screen. There's also a Indiana Jones/James Bond like globetrotting element to the film that's always fun, with Arthur and Mera making journeys to the Sahara desert and Sicily (where one of the best action set pieces takes place.). It's when it's being a big, silly fantasy/adventure epic that embracing its own ludicrous nature that Aquaman plays best. And thankfully it doesn't try to go dark and gritty, which couldn't possibly work in a film that has this many elements to remind us of The Little Mermaid and Gunga City.
Momoa is a highly likable and engaging presence, even if his growly mumble is sometimes a little difficult to understand. He's giving this movie all he's got, and his work here and in Justice League makes a strong case for him as a star in the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Dwayne Johnson mold. Heard is mostly called upon to look beautiful and act earnest, but she does her job well, and gets a chance to show more charisma in a couple of welcome lighter moments. The villains are a mixed bag: Patrick Wilson as Orm, Arthur's half brother and a rival to the Atleantean throne, is solid even if the character is not especially memorable. But the subplot involving Yahnya Abdul-Mantean II as the super villain Black Manta is a major misstep that fails to compel and seriously hurts the film by overcrowding it (it doesn't help that Black Manta's story makes him feel like a dollar store version of Black Panther's Killmonger.). Morrison and Kidman add to the film in their supporting roles, but Willem Dafoe as Arthur's mentor Volko is underused and doesn't get the chance to establish much of a character. Dolph Lundgren, as Mera's father King Nereus, isn't as good as he was in Creed II but still manages to give one of his better performances (which may not be saying a lot but is still welcome.).
Overall, Aquaman is a grand, fun spectacle that just needs to trim around 20 to 25 minutes, dial down some of director Wan's more bombastic tendencies and hit the target a little more often with its humor. It's likely to be sufficiently entertaining for holiday audiences looking to fill the void left by the lack of a Star Wars movie. But it leaves the DCEU just as confused as to where to go as it was coming in, and leaves us wondering why it's so hard for this franchise to give us a completely satisfying movie other than Wonder Woman.