'Aquaman' Is a Wet, Wild Superhero Epic That Surfs on Spectacle
In all its computer-generated splendor and water-logged ambition, Aquaman seeks nothing less than to replicate the vastness of the sea itself. It's an odd, challenging task for a modern superhero origin story, particularly one designed to satisfy the financial demands of a major film studio, fit snugly within the brand-building confines of a pre-existing cinematic universe, and funnel Spotify streams to "Ocean to Ocean," a Toto-sampling song by Pitbull that features an immortal line where the rapper rhymes "the Great Gatsby" with "Banksy." But to accuse this profoundly silly epic of overkill is to miss the point: Aquaman is the Pitbull of superhero movies.
Just as this summer's Venom channelled the sputtering dumb-guy energy of late-period Eminem, who provided the film with its theme song, Aquaman has the endearing, keep-the-party-going vibe of Mr. Worldwide himself. You want to see Amber Heard in a jellyfish dress and a bright red wig that would make Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy turn scarlet with envy? How about a platinum blonde Patrick Wilson wearing a spiked helmet and declaring his desire to be called "the ocean master" at all costs? Or an octopus playing the damn drums? They're all in the underwater club -- and they just ordered bottle service!
Serving as party-planner and bouncer, director James Wan, the filmmaker behind horror hits (Saw, The Conjuring) and at least one ultra-gooey sentimental blockbuster (Furious 7), turns out to be the ideal craftsman for the task of turning Jason Momoa, so charming in a scrappy action thriller like this year's under-seen Braven but utterly lost amidst the botched team-up of 2017's Justice League, into the trident-wielding, fish-communicating host of this celebration. Ready to deadlift an ocean liner in the morning and polish off a case of beers in the afternoon, Momoa's Aquaman is equal parts James Hetfield and Jimmy Buffett.
Before we get whisked away to Margaritaville, Wan and the film's screenwriters have a bit of rote backstory to establish. The movie opens with a Maine lighthouse keeper (played by Temuera Morrison, of Jango Fett fame) discovering the body of an Atlantean princess (Nicole Kidman) washed ashore; the two fall in love in quick fashion, bonding over their mutual appreciation of fish and passion for staring out at the waves, and they soon have a son named Arthur, who holds the potential to bridge the divide between their two respective worlds. After his mother is captured and taken back to the sea, the young man learns that with great power, like talking to sharks at the local aquarium, comes great responsibility from his mentor, Nuidis Vulko (a bizarrely understated Willem Dafoe).
Baby Arthur eventually grows into the hulking Momoa, who gets greeted with a guitar riff almost every time he flips his long, constantly wet locks. He enters the movie by taking out a technologically advanced team of pirates led by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of The Get Down), a villain who will likely become more important in future sequels but mostly spends his screen time here tinkering with his gear. There's a lot going on in the movie's 142 minutes.
The more important bad guy in the film is Arthur's half-brother Orm, played by the aforementioned Patrick Wilson. A stuck-up product of Atlantis's ruling warrior class, Orm wants to control the many factions of the ocean, which include a race of large talking crabs, and declare war on the "surface-dwellers," who he believes are destroying the planet with pollution. (Like the best villains, Orm has a good point, but the movie isn't terribly interested in exploring the nuances of his environmental imperialism.) Despite having little interest in becoming a king, Arthur is pressured by would-be queen Mera (Heard) to challenge Orm and wrest control of the underwater world. As you'd imagine, this larger quest narrative is mostly an excuse to string together wondrous special-effect showcases, like a Top Gun-style dogfight in an aqua-pod, and explosion-filled action set pieces, like a thrilling parkour-and-laser-blasters chase through a beautiful Italian villa. At one point, dinosaurs show up and they almost don't even register.
This is a movie where budding romance, rising palace intrigue, and swash-buckling adventure take a back seat to the quiet glee of watching a team of gifted visual effects artists recreate the aesthetic of a Lisa Frank trapper keeper on a giant IMAX screen. In a darkly lit sequence where Arthur and Mera's boat gets swarmed by glowing monsters, Wan gets to flex the imaginative horror muscles he displayed in his enjoyably bonkers Insidious films, but Aquaman's look is more bright and vibrant than any of the previous DC films, which tended to favor gray color schemes and muted tones. If the movie lacks the visionary breadth and comic-book grandeur of a sci-fi original like Jupiter Ascending, it comes much closer than a piece of wannabe pulp like Guardians of the Galaxy. Unquestionably, Wan is going for it in almost every scene.
Are there storytelling flaws? My man! You're watching Aquaman: narrative contrivances, illogical character motivations, and corny one-liners cling to this movie like barnacles on the back of a whale. Keeping track of them would drive you mad. A state of inner peace can only be achieved by embracing the ephemeral moments: Momoa saying some variation on "shit happens" and then grinning to himself in possibly a dozen scenes; Dolph Lundgren showing up as a king with red hair that floats on his head like wavy pasta; or Heard gobbling up a rose off a branch because she thinks it's food. Tides ebb and flow, but the goofy pleasures of Aquaman are constant.