My how the blockbuster landscape has changed in just under 15 years. Once upon a time, superhero movies were still such a novelty that the mere prospect of an Aquaman film was treated as a yearlong joke on Entourage. Now he’s the actual star of a legitimate and lavish Hollywood spectacle. In the time since then, however, a sort of genre shorthand has taken root, leaving us with an Aquaman that’s come so late to the party it resembles the first attempt at superhero movie mad libs.
With plot elements coincidentally similar to this year’s Black Panther, and other far less innocent resemblances to the works of Richard Donner, Sam Raimi, and a legion of comparable navigators on these familiar tides, there is nary a moment or scene in Aquaman that you haven’t seen done elsewhere. Yet there is still a charm to the pleasure cruise, and it is in large part due to James Wan’s captaining of a leaky ship. Rickety studio conference room notes pour out all around him, but somehow Wan’s crafted one of the most visually dazzling and flashy do-gooder confections this side of, well, Raimi’s own madcap camera movements. Also, unlike any other superhero flick, Wan is playing with mermen riding great white sharks as if they’re horses, and an octopus who delivers one mean drum solo. It may not sound like much to some, but it is the kind of craftiness that keeps this beast from sinking beneath the waves due to its own excess.
Beginning literally on the edge of land and sea, man and woman, Aquaman opens with a daftly amusing prologue. Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) is a daughter of Atlantis, and a water warrior betrothed to a king no less. Yet loathing her fiancé, she runs away and washes up on a lighthouse’s shore one stormy night. Serendipitously the lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) is sweet enough to tend to the aquatic maiden, and smart enough to fall in love with Nicole Kidman. Their love bears a child of both the land and the sea, but in only a few short years, Atlantis has found the family and forces Atlanna to return to her marital duties.
Thirty-three years later, her son is a slab of beefcake named Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa). There’s some lip-service paid to him having defeated a cat called Steppenwolf, but this movie by and large ignores that Justice League ever happened. Instead it’s established he fights pirates by night and drinks his still lovelorn dad under the table by day. But that changes the evening Mera (Amber Heard) emerges from the sea like the Little Mermaid all grown up. She comes with dire tidings: Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is now King of Atlantis and wishes to declare war on the “Surface dwellers” for their polluting the ocean. Wishing to prevent tidal waves and genocide, Arthur will challenge his brother for the throne and find out what exactly happened to his mother. He’ll also get caught up in a cacophony of story padding that involves him and Mera racing across the globe as Orm, a secondary and superfluous villain called Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and some Lovecraftian sea monsters named “the Trench” also give chase. Oh, and did I mention the dinosaurs?
It is fair to say Aquaman is a paradox of a film because it’s absolute nonsense, but is strangely not nonsensical enough. As presented in a piecemeal script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, the picture is aware of the innate silliness of a superhero who talks to fish and swims underwater, but still wants to take itself just seriously enough to feign sincerity. The result is a picture in which Willem Dafoe has the thankless role of riding around on a hammerhead shark espousing mountains of exposition, all while everyone else must furrow their brow in a way to suggest any of this matters. Consequently, the first act is a disorienting series of false starts that gives the impression that the movie will never find its sea legs. And as a story… it might not.
Once Mera finally gets Arthur and Orm face-to-face, the movie does however discover a groove, getting out of its own way and letting the stunning Avatar-like spectacle take over. Still, one cannot help and wonder if the picture was a little more outside-the-box that it would work better as a self-aware comedy. Think Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji. The tonal inconsistencies suggest Wan is aware of this—he after all directed Johnson in Furious 7, the one where the Rock wipes off sweat while doing paperwork—but the compromised story is merely an Excel spreadsheet of sequences someone thinks audiences expect, such as a child discovering his superpowers while being bullied or our hero mugging for the camera with the appropriate one-liner.
And at least when it comes to those catchphrases, Momoa is on-point in the central role. Largely relegated to monosyllabic dialogue of “yeah” and “hell yeah,” he makes a convincing bro hanging out at the bar and riffing on Zoolander jokes. But as a hero in need of introspection or self-discovery, he often flounders in the shallows. Luckily, Heard is on hand to frequently bail him out. Their chemistry is virtually nonexistent, but Heard overcomes the ridiculousness of her fantasy costume for 12-year-old boys to provide a more compelling charisma in the areas where Momoa’s is lacking. Always carrying herself with an old school Hollywood cool, she walks through the movie as the action-heroine sidekick cliché—as well as a few knowing nods to her similarities to Ariel—and elevates it enough to raise the question of why she isn’t the one trying to rule Atlantis? Among the other cast, Kidman also stands out. While she departs the picture early, in a few scenes she offers more humanity than two plus-hours of Momoa’s glowering.
If this sounds like only a litany of woes, nothing can oversell the visual dexterity and inventiveness Wan injects into the proceedings. A master of mood and atmosphere after films like The Conjuring and Saw, he only lightly indulges in his pulpy roots when Mera and Arthur approach the underworld monsters of the Trench. Otherwise he reveals a kaleidoscopic vision of life under the sea punctuated by blistering neon colors and translucent blurs. His camera (and editing) never stops twirling or diving for more than half-a-minute, lest we realize the absurdity of it all, and his penchant for set-piece design and spatial geography is nothing short of gorgeous—particularly in a Sicilian chase scene that is blessedly light on CGI. One wishes he’d work with better material, but he transcends what he is given to a vision that is the antithesis of most modern superhero movies. Whereas the CG-action sequences are often the dullest part of Marvel’s MCU movies, or Zack Snyder’s DCEU bores, Wan showcases an innate understanding of where to place the camera in a bid to overload the viewer’s senses, but never their mind.
The result is a zippy little piece of popcorn that is full of empty calories and is certainly no peer to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman from last year, but it is still a tightly wound toy that is leaps and bounds better than the rest of the DCEU. It might suffer from a patchwork script, a lack of sincere characterization, and tonal shifts that are more chaotic than any shark-on-whale battle (and there are several), but damn if it doesn’t look pretty. For some that will be enough, and at times as vivid as when Arthur and Mera lead a school of monsters to the bottom of the sea in a wide shot lit by only a red flair’s luminescence, it absolutely is. Just don’t expect Aquaman, the character or his movie, to pass as some kind of heroic feat.
Aquaman swims into theaters on Dec. 21. The full schedule of DC superhero movies can be found here.