Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is a man divided between two worlds: the land where his civilian father tends to a lighthouse, and the sea where his mother (Nicole Kidman) is the Queen of Atlantis. Born on Earth yet adopted to the sea by adulthood, Curry faces his greatest test when those two worlds collide, with people looking to him as a leader.
Don’t laugh, folks. I am just talking about Aquaman, the one that isn’t directed by James Cameron and starring Vincent Chase.
The real question is, would it be interesting to watch a serious version of this story? James Wan’s Aquaman is definitely worth watching, but just how good is it? Is it better than Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman? Does it really compare to Avatar and Star Wars in its world-building? Let’s talk about it.
When the film opens up, Arthur is a land and sea dweller, splitting his time between saving innocent sailors trapped on a submarine by pirates and knocking down beers with his old man at the bar off the coast. With little care in the world, Arthur is happy as a man with abilities but no real need to put them to serious use or lead. Known around the states as “Aquaman,” Curry laughs off the local fame and keeps to himself.
Since this would make a far less interesting movie, trouble finds Arthur in the form of a beautiful goddess-like redhead named Mira (Amber Heard), who informs our seaside warrior that a powerful man named King Orm (Patrick Wilson, seething with villainy sleaze) is going to take over Atlantis, which would make him Ocean Master. If you follow normal bad guy coding, Orm being the boss isn’t good for Earth or Atlantis, so enter Arthur.
The only problem is the mere mention of Atlantis triggers Arthur, due to his mother leaving him and his dad at a young age to return to the sea to keep them safe. So begins a push and pull process, yielding the same old reluctant hero trek that anyone who has opened a comic book or watched one on the big screen will recognize. We all know where this is going, so is it worth sticking around and seeing it to the end?
In a word, yes. Wan and company build a beautiful landscape here, submerging the action under water for long stretches of time while dumping the heroes off in exotic lands like Sicily and Sahara to fight evil aliens from the sea. The desert location and music did remind me of the early Star Wars films, so Aquaman has that going for it.
The action is exciting and pulse-pounding at first, but does grow tiresome. There are only so many times where Arthur taking a beating and dishing one back will come off as enjoyable, and the laser guns carried by the enemies only sting for a few scenes. However, the various sea creatures that the characters command are well thought out and designed. Once again, the visual effects are stunning.
Then again, there’s one reason the film works and that’s due to the star.
Momoa is tremendous as Curry, filling out the character’s wit, charm, and heroism with the ease of a quick swim. From the minute Zack Snyder (a producer here and the one who picked the Game of Thrones star to play the character) released the first poster to his supporting role in Justice League, Momoa has simply looked the part. If you saw Curry in a comic book and thought of the best actor to bring him to life onscreen, it would be Momoa. End of story.
From the second he steps on the submarine in the early going, looking to the audience while saying, “Permission to come aboard?” the actor gets your attention and holds onto it. He could be asking for permission to rock your world for two hours. It’s an effortless portrayal that makes you think he was the only true person to play the role. Without Momoa’s humor and larger-than-life look, Aquaman is a tedious enterprise of hope instead of a fun ride through a world we are only beginning to know and understand.
I did mention humor. Thank goodness for the laughs here, because no one on this planet needed another morose-stuffed DCEU experience defined by the word, “MARTHA!” Wan and his screenwriting team of David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall layer the relentless action with laughter that doesn’t come across as forced. Think of Momoa and Heard as an intergalactic sea tandem trading barbs and quips; buddy comedy tactics for a new generation. Without the laughs, Aquaman would be hard to stomach. After all, we are talking about a man who communicates with fish.
Wan’s self-awareness in knowing the story he is telling helps this movie become a guilty pleasure and steers it clear of some of the faults that have plagued the DCEU for over a decade.
Namely, the length of the movie. Aquaman can’t swim away from this misstep. Once again, the editing doesn’t stop someone from checking their watch and wondering how many more water fights these people have to get through in order to win. Clocking in at 2 hours and 23 minutes, Aquaman doesn’t come off completely smooth, nor does it always transition well from story thread to story thread. The pace of the film does leave something to be desired, and will have you check the phone on a few occasions. It’s not just the running time, but how it is put to use. A few trims and tucks would have meant the world to a film that needs to hold people’s attentions. For example, a Marvel film never feels overlong, even pressing past the two and a half hour mark.
It is impossible to review a DCEU film without mentioning Marvel, because after all, each are working within the same realm of make-believe. There are a few instances here where the sly self-aware tactics by Wan bleed into maximum effort to create something original and cool. Aquaman tries hard in parts to be something more than its predecessors, and it shows.
Wonder Woman remains the only film to come off as concise, perfectly timed, and operating on its own level of confidence. Aquaman falls prey as the kid vying hard for your affection. Hence the 45 different trailers and promos before its release.
Outside of Momoa, the rest of the cast puts in fine work without really standing out. Kidman is having a wonderful year with this, Boy Erased, and Destroyer. It’s hard for her to be bad in any film. Wilson makes for a devious yet run-of-the-mill bad guy with a unique bond to Curry. Dolph Lundgren is solid in a supporting role as a King who gets caught up between Orm and Arthur. Willem Dafoe is the old wise warrior who looked after Arthur and trained him on the most exotic cliffs and ocean fronts in the world.
Heard has as much acting talent as Megan Fox, carrying two different expressions that define Mira, but it doesn’t get in the way of the movie working or failing. She doesn’t give much of a performance, but the movie didn’t hinge its bets on it, so the role is allowed to slide.
Look, Aquaman is silly, stupid fun if you go in with the right expectations. There’s enough humor from Wan-powered self-awareness and Momoa to go around, making up for the shortcomings of the normal reproduction of the DC Universe. The world-building is momentarily invigorating, even if it grows tiresome as you wait for the film to truly take off. You’ll know where Aquaman is going long before it reaches the third act, but unlike Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice or Justice League, you’ll be awake to find out.
What about the Star Wars comparisons? Remember this. When the original came out in 1978, how many people do you think thought it was ridiculous and silly, but fun as well? I bet quite a few did. I don’t think Aquaman compares, but for some kids and teenagers who see this film, it may end up being their time capsule film.
Sprawling. Silly. Epic. Overbearing. These are all suitable descriptions for Aquaman. The movie does go all over the place before it reaches the big fight and finds a comfortable destination. While it falls short of greatness, the film does attain a level of worthwhile enjoyment thanks to Jason Momoa taking Arthur Curry to another level and James Wan layering the action with enough humor to offset the laborious running time and pace.
I’ll call this a double off the wall instead of a home run, but it’s definitely better than a weak grounder on the infield.