As an adaptation of the Aquaman mythos, it’s hard to imagine something with more fidelity. Sure, the Justice League version of the character seems to have as much in common with Lobo as Arthur Curry, but just as Patty Jenkins aimed (successfully) to reverse engineer a narrative in-line with the comics from a pre-defined template and already cast actor, James Wan had the same arduous task in front of him. Unlike Jenkins’ effort though, Wan is in a position where there’s almost no need to reference a Zack Snyder film in any way, short of a brief mention of Steppenwolf in passing, firmly placing the events of this movie after Justice League. Aquaman finds its narrative hold in an origin tale & hero’s journey filtered through the lens of the aforementioned Johns/Reis/Pelletier comics. To some degree it also acts as a continuation of those comics, or at least as a way to address some of the questions remained unanswered from that run.
You can pretty much pick up the story off the trailers, and if you have any sense of the character, you’ll probably know what to expect. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is a social media sensation, with even tough as nails bikers wanting to take selfies with him. He spends his days, when not out saving submarines from pirates, getting drunk under the table with his dad Tom (Temuera Morrison), both longing for Arthur’s mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who was taken forcibly back to Atlantis when Arthur was very young. In the intervening years, Arthur has felt like an outcast, never welcome in Atlantis due to his “half-breed” status, while also looked at differently on the mainland thanks to his abilities. There’s surely something to be said thematically about being mixed-race here, though I’m not totally sure the film does the heavy lifting to dig into that meatier subtext.
Anyhow, Arthur has two allies back in his mother’s homeland, Vulko (Willem DaFoe) and Mera (Amber Heard). They’ve grown tired of the increasingly unstable rule of King Orm (Patrick Wilson) and want Arthur to come to Atlantis to claim the throne. Our guitar-lick inflected hero has no interest in that, but then disaster strikes as Orm attacks the surface-world in preparation for war through the unification of the Seven Kingdoms. In looking to put a stop to him, Arthur journeys alongside Mera to finally take back his birthright.
Honestly, that’s just barely scratching the surface. As you may have heard in other reviews, Aquaman is indeed a lot of movie, so much so it feels like it’s about 4 films folded on top of one another. To some degree that actually works to its benefit as it takes a dive into the weirdest possible elements of the character and the potential oddities of the underwater setting. It even, as previously stated, answers some of the questions that Johns (who gets a story credit here) left standing. We learn the identities of the Seven Kingdoms of the fractured Atlantis, for example. I don’t know if we’ve ever been treated to an occasion when a movie fills in the gaps of comic book lore, but it’s a nice touch. Though this kind of condensed, hyper-narrative also lends itself to easy confusion. The movie seems to also realize this, with its principle heroes, in every other scene, reminding themselves (and you) of what they’re after and why. It’s as if Wan and company got to thinking they might not ever get another chance at this, so they go totally for broke. It’s admirable, even if it doesn’t fully gel together.
Speaking of Wan, he conjures (ugh, sorry) this material as an eye-popping extravaganza. Of all the directors, not just within the DC stable, but within the larger superhero sphere, Wan might very well be the most gifted visual stylist. From the sun-drenched shores of Maine, the neon glow of Atlantis, to darker depths of the Trench, this may be the most beautifully shot live-action comic book film we’ve seen. It’s a visual feast of color and design, even down the immaculately crafted armor worn by the troops of Atlantis. And in some case, its action is rather breath-taking. I get pretty exhausted of superhero films basically adapting the same kind of approach to action that you’d see in a CW show (CGI rubber-men replacing flesh and blood performers), but Wan finds a way to keep his actors and their stunt doubles front and center in the frame, and spins the camera around to give you a full view of the space they’re working in. For the first time in a while, I was able to believe in what I saw rather than a floating head awkwardly super-imposed over a digitally recreated body. There’s one sequence in particular that I think might be among the best I’ve seen this year in any film, you’ll know it when you see it.
All that said, Aquaman has to rely on a lot of its visual wonder, as the script is rather rough-shod with some of the worst dialogue I can remember from one of these capes and tights exercises. It also strikes a heavily overwrought, even cheesy tone at times, which can be difficult to get on-board with. With almost everyone on-screen playing to the back row (Wilson almost seems like he could break out into song at any moment), Aquaman takes on a somewhat surreal air that left me wondering, “what am I watching?”. The first 15-20 minutes are especially difficult, as it turns up the melodrama to about 11, seemingly as a way to set your expectations for what kind of ride you’re in for. Once Momoa and Heard pair up, the movie starts to find a little more of a groove, especially as they go on a globe-trotting Romancing The Stone-style adventure. But there’s always a distance there, the words coming out of their mouths never quite sit well. It’s bit like watching a very well-dressed and fancy orchestra with a few players that are dreadfully out of tune. You can basically get through it all, but every few measures your ears keep catching bum notes.
You’ll note that I haven’t mentioned the other villain of the entire piece, Black Manta (played by Yahya Abdul Mateen II), that’s because he barely factors into the movie other than as an obstacle in one set piece and as a pseudo-teachable moment for Arthur, though not really. To be honest, it’s not terribly clear what Arthur learns from their moments together and the ramifications thereof. Additionally, for Mateen’s part, he’s fairly isolated from the rest of the cast when you actually see his face, and if you told me his scenes were all added after the fact, I’d find it pretty believable.
Though for those of you who can ride out it’s more Green Lantern-esque touches, there’s still some elements to enjoy, Amber Heard pulls off a solid B-movie style sidekick (bad wig and all), and Momoa, while basically just turning Aquaman towards his own outsized personality, brings so much enthusiasm to the proceedings that you can’t help but root for him with each turn. Though as a pair they have about zero chemistry, and leave you wanting for Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.
For better or worse, in Aquaman, every scene builds off the next in such an insane way conceptually, that at some point it almost all approaches fever dream, or better yet, the kind of movie Ray Harryhausen might take part in were he alive today. In its broader strokes, it shares some kinship with Thor: Ragnarok in its appreciation of 80’s sci-fi adventure, but where that masterpiece is perhaps aligned with Buckaroo Banzai, this has much more in common with Flash Gordon.
If you’re familiar enough with that cult cornball classic to know that sounds like something you want to sign up for, then you may very well be headed towards safe harbor (I’m sorry, I’m trying to stop), but the viewer looking for something that goes beyond cosmetic razzmatazz is going to be left wanting.