Aquaman follows in the path of Wonder Woman by going back to give an already established character in the DCEU an origin film. It’s not nearly as enjoyable as Wonder Woman though, putting more of its emphasis on spectacle and design than characterizations, but fans of the universe thus far will not likely mind, given that it is at least on par, if not a tick better, than his debut in Justice League, after a tiny glimpse in Batman v. Superman.
The setting starts sometime in the 1980s, where we find Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) coming up to the surface in the state of Maine to get away from an arranged marriage, seeking a bit of sanctuary and time to heal in a lighthouse run by a human named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). The two unlikely partners fall in love, eventually leading to a son, Arthur Curry. The kingdom of Atlantis is not pleased with Atlanna’s apparent defection to the land, sending out their soldiers to claim her back, culminating in Tom being left alone to raise the boy himself as a human, except one with the powers of Atlanteans in his DNA, including an ability to talk to and command all forms of marine life.
We fast forward to Arthur’s adulthood, known to the land-dwellers as “The Aquaman” after a series of public acts of heroism, one including taking down pirates that includes future nemesis Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mareen II). However, Arthur has to become a savior to his adopted people when the current rule of Atlantis, Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), is looking to mount a war with the land walkers who continue to pollute the oceans, seeking the assistance of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), one of the leaders of the ‘seven seas’ needed to approve. Nereus’s daughter Mera looks to recruit Arthur’s assistance in staving off the uprising from his brother’s charge. Arthur must go undersea to make his presence felt, but the opposite of a fish out of water in his new environs in the Atlantean realm, especially when the situation boils down to a mano-a-mano battle between Arthur and Orm on his home turf (or non-turf, as it happens to be).
Long since being one of the corniest of the popular core members of the DC superheroes lineup, the makers of Aquaman do achieve a certain coolness factor in the character, primarily in the casting of likable beefcake action star Jason Momoa in the role. Momoa is much different in appearance than the blonde and bland version from the pages of DC Comics, but that character was known for being very un-cool, so the switch to the hardcore anti-hero is needed. However, Arthur has barely a sense of history or much personality beyond whatever’s required in the moment, leading to a picket universe of characters that doesn’t feel at all lived in for very long.
The script from David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall is one of the bigger liabilities, as the film is far less interesting when dealing with the main plot than it is in just the character interactions brought to life by a capable cast. There are moments of humor, a few that come off as naturally funny, even though it’s not quite as fun or witty as perhaps the most equivalent Marvel film to this, Thor. Momoa and Heard are an attractive onscreen presence, but they aren’t exactly versatile enough to handle the many moods of the story in a way that makes you not keenly observant of the shifts in tone when they occur. James Wan mainstay Patrick Wilson makes for a lackluster heavy, about as bland as he tends to be in most films, which makes him not a very good foil for the robust presence of Momoa to contend with. Meanwhile, there is an entirely superfluous subplot involving the pirate named Black Manta who wants revenge on Aquaman for letting his father die during a Russian submarine heist, which beefs up the screen tie but offers next to nothing to the main story or its momentum.
Wan’s direction is energetic but lacks a suspenseful build-up to its reveals, utilizing camera movements to create scope but doesn’t marry image to editing to music in a way that gets you wholly in its grip as a story, leading to a film that feels flashy but forgettable. It’s vibrant, perhaps overly so, coated with CG elements that already feel obvious and dated, even though a great deal of detail has obviously gone into the character, set, and vehicle design. The physics underwater are weird, mostly because they seem to resemble the same physics you would find while on land, despite being in the deepest parts of the ocean. Lots of ideas are introduced that Wan hasn’t the time or desire to explore, so we just have to take at face value all of the colorful attire, fancy weapons, and strange underwater structures without pondering what they truly are made of and why they exist in such a fashion.
In the end, that sums up the movie: lots of aesthetically interesting ideas in search of meaning, constantly moving in weightless fashion but not really making much headway into something of substance worth pondering beyond it. It’s a slight tick up from the depths of where the DCEU has been, but resembles a few too many Marvel films to feel like it swims in a school of its own.
Qwipster’s rating: C+
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Running Time: 143 min.
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison
Small role: Randall Park, Leigh Whannell, Djimon Hounsou, John Rhys-Davies, Julie Andrews
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall