Loud, shallow, and utterly entertaining. Aquaman is in capable hands with James Wan at the helm, as he has crafted a beautifully imaginative world that is a prime setting for the vibrant epic action spectacle. The film also serves as further evidence that the DCEU should stick to refreshing origin stories for now and put the collaborative team-up features on the back burner.
Despite being a legacy character within the DC comics ecosystem, Aquaman has long been the target of copious jokes in pop culture. This ridicule stems from the hero’s powers of communicating with aquatic life being viewed as useless when compared with his other super-powered peers. While his abilities are understandably not the most glamorous or awe-inspiring, the character’s representation in the otherwise disappointing 2017 Justice League film capably demonstrated that the character can be a lot of fun thanks to Jason Momoa’s unique “surfer-bro” take on the character. This trend of being a distinctive character that audiences can rally behind continues in Aquaman, as the origin story offers a refreshing hero that is crowd-pleasingly entertaining.
Aquaman takes place shortly after the conclusion of Justice League but begins with a flashback detailing how Arthur Curry’s mortal father (Temuera Morrison) met and fell in love with the princess of Atlantis, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). We are shown that despite caring deeply for her newly formed family on the land, Atlanna must return to her underwater kingdom for fear of their safety from her fellow Atlanteans. After watching as Arthur grew up over the years without his mother and how his powers of communicating with marine life first manifested, we fast-forward to the present. A now fully grown Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) spends his time defending the ocean from criminals as we witness the aquatic hero singlehandedly thwart a group of pirates from hijacking a nuclear submarine.
It is later revealed that the ruler of Atlantis who also happens to be Arthur’s younger half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson) is plotting to attack surface world as he holds humanity responsible for his mother’s death. Despite being betrothed to Orm, Mera (Amber Heard) is intent on thwarting this drastic plan and approaches Arthur, requesting that he help by asserting his rightful claim to the throne of Atlantis. Although initially reluctant, Arthur eventually is won over by Mera and agrees to help by traversing the globe in search of the Trident of Atlan, a mythical weapon that will provide Arthur with what he needs to dethrone his radical younger brother.
The almost Shakespearian conflict between brothers vying for the throne may sound awfully familiar with entries from Marvel featuring a long-haired blonde with a hammer and a Wakandan prince with a vibranium suit coming to mind, however, Aquaman has a lightness to it that allows these similarities to become less noticeable as you watch. Arthur Curry’s characterization sets him apart from his peers as he isn’t a righteous do-gooder, but rather a surprisingly relatable guy who strives to do the right thing and still not miss happy hour. The character even comes complete with a complicated moral code, as it turns out he isn’t willing to save everyone he encounters and holds murderers of innocents fully accountable.
Prior to the film’s release, director James Wan expressed that his approach to filming the underwater sequence would be to essentially make it like Star Wars but in the depths of the ocean. This was ambitious, to say the least, but the right approach, as unlike the brief underwater sequences in Justice League which came off as stiff and awkward, the depiction here is thrilling and fluid.
Even more impressive is the level of ingenuity that went into the design of the vividly colorful worlds on display. There is strong attention to detail as the world design is impressive from top to bottom as seen by the elaborate costumes and the inventive water-based technology used by the inhabitants of Atlantis. This ambition culminates in an enthrallingly strange and novel land, which is easily the highlight of the film.
While Aquaman, especially in the first act, is a bit bogged down with one too many exposition-loaded stories from the past as well as some rushed development regarding Vulko’s (Willem Dafoe) relationship with the titular hero, the story handles the side character of Black Manta in a commendably efficient manner. The film wisely integrates David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in a way that suitably fleshes the character out with an origin story of his own without committing the bloated villain problem that plagues so many superhero films today. All other films of the genre should take note because this integration serves as the prime example of how to approach having more than one villain in your story.
It has to be stated though that despite being gorgeously enticing, these are shallow waters, and unlike so many other recent offerings such as Marvel’s Black Panther and the DCEU’s own Wonder Woman, there is nothing to this epic aquatic adventure beyond thrilling action and beautifully vibrant aesthetics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, as not every superhero film needs to break new ground or offer subtext that challenges cultural norms. It is at times sufficient to treat audiences to colorful, light action spectacle in a refreshingly original world. Aquaman is a ton of fun and is definitely worth diving into this holiday season.