Aquaman. The victim of many a joke and a superhero oft-maligned as too silly and ineffectual. “He talks to fish, big woop…” everyone cries. Yes, for those of us aware of the character’s long history within the pages of DC’s various books across the decades, we know this isn’t the case. Handled correctly, the character can be just as engaging, complex and interesting as any of DC’s other heavy hitters like Batman or Wonder Woman. But with DC’s previous movie output so far not being up to much snuff, is Aquaman about to plump new depths and be forever cemented as a joke for all eternity?
Thankfully no. Director James Wan‘s take on the character (previously introduced in 2017’s very-uneven Justice League) is weird, wacky and occasionally laughable, but it treats the character of Arthur Curry and the lore attached with him with respect, throwing out the more unworkable elements and replacing them with a cooler, more realistic and relatable components. The story is largely played straight and there’s depth (pardon the pun) given to the large roster of characters, good and bad alike.
The plot is a basic introduction to the character and the lore surrounding him. That’s to say, it’s basic at least to begin with. We get the origin over-and-done within the first ten minutes, including a brilliantly choreographed action sequence involving Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s mother, Atlanna. From there, Aquaman is plunged into a plot that sees him return to Atlantis to challenge his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) for the throne in a bid to halt a war with the surface world, which in turn leads him and love-interest Mera (Amber Heard) on a quest to find a lost trident that will grant him the power to defeat Orm (or something to that effect).
As a film, Aquaman is enjoyable enough and loaded with great action scenes, special effect sequences and plenty of humor. But as the plot outline above makes clear, the story is overstuffed and lacks a clear direction. So many characters, story threads and other elements from the comics are chucked in all at once, but not many of them connect to the central plot as well as they should. The appearance of major characters from the books like the Trench feel like an after-thought, and aren’t explored enough to warrant our attention. The fact that the film is almost two-and-a-half hours long makes this all the more irksome. A lot of what we get here could form a decent sequel in and of itself.
The film ventures into choppier waters with it’s overall cheesy tone as well. Intentional or not, there’s no denying that what we get here is something of a throwback to the cornier action movies of the 80’s and 90’s (and not just because Dolph Lundgren is in it). Stupid one-liners and an endless stream of bad-ass moments that aren’t actually that bad-ass at all appear throughout. Think Flash Gordon under the sea, and you’ll have an idea of the kind of film you’re in for. It’s definitely entertaining, but expect to groan just as much as you laugh.
These issues aside, though, Aquaman is impressive in many ways. James Wan‘s direction elevates proceedings considerably, with the underwater imagery a particular triumph. There are a few moments where the sheer amount of CGI sets and set-pieces are overwhelming, but for the most part, Wan does well to give the film a firm, convincing visual identity. Jason Momoa is a great leading man throughout, imbuing Arthur with the right amount of charisma and charm to go alongside the more rambunctious aspects of the character, whilst both the villains are given a fair amount of development and motivation beyond the standard revenge/evil schtick (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is particularly great as Black Manta in this respect). And whilst some of the characters and events feel cliched compared to other superhero films, the tone is a far cry from the depressingly bleak and serious attitude possessed of previous DC movies. Fun is the key to Aquaman‘s success, and whilst some aspects are either cheesy or overstretched, the final product is enjoyable fare.
Best seen on a mammoth IMAX screen, the action sequences are astounding and the photography looks sublime (especially when it comes to the bigger underwater sequences). A movie made for the biggest screen possible, there’s no denying that James Wan‘s overall vision for the movie is successfully realized. Aside from a few groan-worthy aspects and some moments of pure cheese, Aquaman represents another step in the right direction for DC’s movies, and an entertaining new take on a character that deserves a fresh reappraisal in the world of superhero culture.