Aquaman has been something of a running joke in comic book culture. He’s been ridiculed, parodied, and teased by fans and critics alike for decades, so the pressure was really on Warner Bros and DC to try to make the King of Atlantis cool for modern audiences. Zack Snyder found his Atleantean in Jason Momoa and sought to re-invent the character. We got our first peak of him with a non-speaking cameo in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and again as a supporting character in Justice League, two films that were not very well received by fans and critics. Now Arthur Curry is here in his first solo film and he’s looking to change the tides for the DC Cinematic Universe.
Arthur and Jason share a lot of similarities in terms of their characterization and that has allowed the towering Momoa to make this Aquaman his own. Arthur is a man of two people. His mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), is the Queen of Atlantis who fell in love with a mortal lighthousekeeper (Temura Morrison) after being washed ashore. Thanks to his parentage, Arthur never really felt like he belonged among his ocean people or with the surface dwellers, much like Momoa himself, who is half Hawaiian, half Mainland American and struggled to fit in. Aquaman himself is more realized and layered than his appearance in Justice League, which saw many of his scenes with his Aquaman co-stars cut from the film. He’s still got that “surfer bro” attitude, but thankfully there’s more to him than that. He has to find his place in the world, despite being something of an outcast who wants to hide away and reject his heritage. But when his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson) declares war on the surface world, the ones he sees as responsible for destroying the ocean with pollution, and in a way he’s right, it’s up to Arthur and Amber Heard’s Mera to stop him. How will they do this? By embarking on an old-school quest to recover a lost artifact that can unite the Seven Kingdoms. At the same time, Orm seeks to ally himself with the other Kingdoms in order to become Ocean Master, a title which will grant him dominion over the sea.
I have to say that I wasn’t terribly excited about this film. Despite liking what the cast said about the film at SDCC, the trailers failed to impress me. But I came away surprised. The movie isn’t perfect, specifically, it has problems mainly found in its script, but it’s problems never drag the film to the bottom of the ocean and I left feeling good about the experience I just had.
Where the film shines is its design. The ocean is a largely uncharted domain and director James Wan and his team have had a lot of fun creating the underwater kingdoms. These worlds are so incredibly imaginative and capture the eye. Bright blues, purples, and whites highlight the screen and submersible craft shaped like aquatic creatures are fun to watch. Despite drowning in CGI, there are still quite a few well-detailed sets being used here. A personal favourite is a safe house found on the ocean floor in Atlantis that is actually a sunken ship. It may be a tiny set, but it’s full of small details that make it feel real. Likewise, the costumes are so imaginative and so zany that it’s hard not to be impressed. They all look like they were pulled from a comic book page and while that may make many characters look goofy, the movie just runs with it and it’s easy to embrace how crazy it looks. It does, however, work in the film’s favour as it’s all supposed to look kind of crazy. This is a movie where military personnel ride around under the ocean on sharks or giant sea dragons firing laser beams. Jason Momoa talks to sea creatures! It’s completely bonkers but it’s a thrill to watch (and it is aesthetically amazing). A shot of Willem Defoe’s Vulco looking onto a school of manta rays migrating looks like something you’d see on BBC’s Blue Planet.
This is a very busy movie, clocking in just under two and a half hours and the film uses that runtime to make this superhero film an amalgamation of a couple of genres. Aquaman may be a superhero, but this film doesn’t play out like most superhero films do. Instead, Arthur plays the role of a reluctant King who must overthrow his brother for the crown. Not only that, but he has to unite the Seven Kingdoms and, to do that, he’ll need to find the Trident of Atlan, which has faded into myth. Unsure about its existence, Arthur and Mera embark on a treasure hunt to find the Trident. On top of the treasure-hunting quest, there are gladiatorial fight scenes, Kaiju sea monsters, an epic battle between massive armies, and Arthur’s own personal quest to become the King he was born to be. It’s a lot to handle and for the most part, James Wan pulls it off. The movie is still a little too long and could’ve maybe shaved around ten minutes off the runtime. Where Wan really succeeds, however, is through his iconic camera work. There is a fight scene that happens early on in the film that was done in one take, with the camera flying around the room. Two other sequences on land halfway through the film are also a treat, again with the camera tracking the action. The action scenes are, for the most part, filmed with wider shots and aren’t choppily edited, making it easy to follow the action (a rare pleasure in modern blockbuster cinema).
Another high point in the film is the score. I actually really enjoyed it and it comes courtesy of Rupert Gregson-Williams, the same composer who helped bring 2017’s Wonder Woman to life. The music was epic when needed and majestic in other places. It successfully combined a traditional score with pulse-pounding electronic synths. Specifically, Black Manta’s theme (The Black Manta) stands out as a brilliantly strong leitmotif that recurs throughout the film.
The movie isn’t completely perfect, however. The biggest flaw this underwater epic has is dialogue. It can be hard to listen to at times and that largely stems from the script. Some characters, like Mera, seem to be there to largely spew exposition and since this world is so unique and different to ours, there is a ton of exposition to sit through. Likewise, some of the dialogue is extremely cringy. There’s cheesy, and then there’s this. It never took me out of the movie, but sometimes I did have to pause and process what I just heard. The film also goes more moments of levity and while that is certainly welcome in an adventure epic like this one, many of the jokes just did not land at all. Audiences did laugh, however, at one scene, but I don’t think they were supposed to laugh. There is a slow-motion walking out of the ocean bit that’s very Dr. No set over that controversial Pitbull cover of Toto’s Africa and audience members were laughing at it, despite the film making it seem like a cool moment. That may have been the lowest point of the film. The film was also a little predictable, especially when it came to King Orm’s plan.
A final criticism is the inclusion of a secondary villain, Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. I understand why the character is there, but I didn’t buy into Manta’s story at all. We’re supposed to sympathize with him a bit and then empathize with Arthur later in the film, but it’s hard to do that when Black Manta is a murderous pirate with zero redeemable qualities. His dialogue is often forced and borderline eye-rolling. I feel like Black Manta should’ve been given more time to develop but, instead, he’s simply “the bad guy” who says “bad guy” things. Considering his personal vendetta against Arthur, it would’ve been better to have him be more realized so we the audience could sympathize with him. Instead, he’s just there to give us an action scene. Credit, however, where credit is due as the costume department deserves praise for making Black Manta appear as he does in the comic book and not trying to tone down his oversized helmet.
Despite some shortcomings though, the film is still pretty fun and is easily one of the better DC films in the extended cinematic universe. It marks the beginning of a new direction for the franchise, one willing to take big chances and experiment with genres. The film is lighter and fun and can arguably be considered an epic more than a superhero film. It’s cringy and makes one’s eyes roll at times and some of the characters are paper thin, but the positive moments ultimately outweigh any negatives. It’s zany, weird, and full of imagination. Ultimately, it’s about unity and finding one’s place and those themes and the fresh world rise above the problems the film does have. As long as you don’t take Aquaman too seriously, you should enjoy this high seas adventure.