Let’s not beat around the bush: DC’s big-screen Extended Universe hasn’t had the smoothest of rides so far. Under Zack Snyder’s stewardship, the franchise’s early entries put a dour, contentious spin on iconic heroes Superman and Batman. Next, Suicide Squad gave us a farcical take on some of DC’s most popular villains. Luckily, Patty Jenkins’ triumphant Wonder Woman seemed to steady the ship. And then there was Justice League…
It’s this rocky road that has placed enormous pressure on James Wan’s Aquaman, the latest entry in the DCEU and the first major big-screen outing for the oft-derided aquatic adventurer. So, has Wan successfully navigated the franchise’s choppy waters? Well, mostly, yes – but it’s not all plain sailing.
One of the smartest things that Aquaman does is to tell its own story. Granted, it’s not a particularly original one (with beats that recall Thor, Wonder Woman and Black Panther). But, mercifully, there are no wider-universe elements shoehorned in here – save for one passing reference. The only world Aquaman is interested in building is the one that lies under the sea.
Since teaming up with the Justice League to take down Steppenwolf, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has been embracing his new life as the sea-bound superhero known as Aquaman, dipping in to take on pirates and mercenaries before heading back to land to go boozing with his human pops (Temuera Morrison) and taking selfies with the locals. That is, until, he’s visited by warrior Mera (Amber Heard), who wants Arthur to reclaim his Atlantean heritage and challenge his half-brother, the extremist King Orm (Patrick Wilson), to the throne before he unleashes war upon Earth’s land-dwellers. The only way he can defeat Orm, though, is to find and wield the mythical Trident of Atlantis – and so a quest begins…
At one point in Aquaman, an octopus plays the drums. It’s significant for two reasons. One, because it’s an octopus playing the drums! Two, because it shows just how different Wan’s take is from the drab, humourless settings of Snyder’s movies. That’s not to say that Aquaman is a joke, but it certainly embraces the more absurd elements of Curry’s world – and is all the more fun for it.
Wan has taken the opportunity to craft a new cinematic habitat from scratch and run with it. The film is stuffed to the gills with visual invention, from the out-there costumes and cool creatures (battle sharks!) to Atlantis itself – a colourful, day-glo playground that pops off the screen like a submerged Pandora.
He also brings his signature flair to the film’s action sequences – in particular, a thrilling deep-sea jaunt that sees Arthur and Mera fighting off sinister piranha-people with only glowing red flares to light their way (a jumpy nod to Wan’s horror heritage), and the film’s central, land-based set-piece – a stunning Sicilian sojourn in which our heroes are hunted across rooftops by Aquaman’s bug-eyed comic-book nemesis, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, introduced impressively here but clearly earmarked for bigger, badder things).
Of course, the film hinges on the big man himself, and Momoa builds on the promise he showed in his Justice League debut. The comic-book incarnation of Aquaman has long been the butt of many a fishy-themed gag, but Momoa imbues him with a hard-drinking, life-loving, rock-star swagger. It’s something we haven’t really seen before – a superhero who looks like he’d be as much at home thrashing around at a metal gig as he would saving the world, and one you definitely wouldn’t want to mess with (“I’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it,” he smirks). Free of any previous big-screen baggage, it’s an enthusiastic, energetic performance that steers Curry away from boy scout territory and channels the actor’s larger-than-life charisma (Henry Cavill, take note).
The film is not all swim, no sink, though. At its worst, it feels like it’s trying too hard to replicate past DCEU successes, without addressing their fundamental flaws. Case in point? Take the flashbacks of a young Arthur during his various stages of training, as he is secretly schooled in the art of Atlantean fighting by friend and mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe deftly stepping into Robin Wright’s Amazonian shoes). Ditto the mythology-heavy origins of Atlantis cut-scene. Wonder Woman may have been a franchise high-point, but there’s a whiff of sticking to formula here.
Not only does Aquaman inherit Wonder Woman’s strengths, but also its biggest weakness. Initially, the film zips along at a fine pace, with lots of opportunity for character building – some of it surprisingly touching, in the case of early scenes featuring Curry’s Atlantean mum, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). But come the third act, it is undone by its own ambitions – the world-building becomes too stretched for its own good, as we say hello-goodbye to several of the Seven Kingdoms in a rush to get to the climactic battle…
Yep, you guessed it: the film’s visual feast quickly turns into a CG eyesore, with a host of new creatures – including a huge, kaiju-like end-of-level boss – joining the fray. Suddenly, we’re in familiar territory: an overlong, increasingly erratic conclusion in which everything including the kitchen sink is chucked at the screen. It all becomes a bit of a headache, and it evaporates some of the film’s previously cultivated goodwill.
Bad habits aside, though, Aquaman mostly achieves what many thought unachieveable – turning AC into a credible big-screen hero in his own right, finally unshackled from team-ups and extended universes. It may not be the jewel in the DCEU crown, but it might just give the faltering franchise its sea legs.
Aquaman opens in UK cinemas on 12 December