While superheroes gain popularity with each passing year, fame has alluded Aquaman. Pop culture has not been kind, more often making him the butt of some fish joke rather than celebrating what makes the King of the Seven Seas such a unique, interesting hero. And sure, when the only version of Aquaman embedded in our current zeitgeist is the one from the 1970s cartoon, Super Friends, it isn’t all too surprising the character never caught on.
James Wan’s Aquaman is here to change that, finally giving audiences a proper introduction to the character that – while not strictly accurate to the comics – is a far, far better adaptation than anything in recent memory. And though, technically, audiences met this version of Aquaman in last year’s Justice League, this is the film that will make Aquaman a star. (Yeah, I said it.)
When lighthouse keeper, Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) stumbles on a beautiful woman washed up on the shore, never could he have guessed that she was queen of an underwater kingdom far older and more advanced than anything on the surface – or that she’d be the love of his life. Not long after, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) gives birth to a son, Arthur, and the family lives a quiet, simple life. That is until Atlanna’s past comes looking for her, and after fighting off an attack from Atlantis, she must return to the kingdom in order to keep her family safe.
Fast-forward and Arthur (Jason Momoa) is now a full-grown man, using the abilities he gained from his mother’s Altantean heritage – superhuman strength, supersonic speeds underwater, and the ability to telepathically control sea life – to patrol the ocean and help those in need. He isn’t yet a true hero, still needing to learn the responsibility that comes with his power, but there are signs of the greatness to come. Soon, though, his half-brother, King Orm of Atlantis (Patrick Wilson) declares war on the surface world. Orm’s fiancée, Mera (Amber Heard), seeks Arthur’s help in stopping the war, in time convincing Arthur that he if were to take his place as King of Atlantis, he could be the bridge between the land and sea.
Aquaman is wild. It is absolutely bonkers. The movie is a roller coaster ride through some of the most imaginative, strikingly beautiful settings since Star Wars or Avatar. Yes, the design feels that ground-breaking in respect to Atlantis and the other underwater kingdoms. There are action sequences that are as riveting as anything in a Mission Impossible or Fast & Furious film; epic battles that rival those seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Aquaman is a visual splendor of CGI wizardry (some more impressive than others), always giving viewers something interesting to look at, from the depths of Atlantis to the deserts of Africa.
As a director, Wan plays to his strengths in both the action sequences and horror scenes. The action isn’t just wildly entertaining, it’s diverse, with rooftop chases, gladiatorial brawls, and high-speed pursuits to name just a few. The introduction of the Trench – an underwater race of primal, piranha-like creatures – allows Wan, the horror maestro, to create a frightening scene set on a lonely boat adrift at sea. Enhancing all of this is cinematographer Don Burgess’ camera work, which incorporates sweeping, fluid movement and wide, gorgeous vistas. Aquaman is also an absolute treat in 3D (a format I rarely recommend), making the most of camera’s visual flow as it moves through the water.
Being that Aquaman completely nails so much – from the way Atlanteans move and talk underwater to Arthur’s reluctance to accept his destiny – it’s a shame that the story isn’t just a little stronger. It’s good, but some characters are a bit flat, with simple motivations, exposition is dumped through clunky dialogue, and the final resolution feels rushed. All that aside, Aquaman manages to keep a quick pace, never taking itself too seriously as it plainly lays out its completely surreal premise, making sure to sell the fun above all else. There are soldiers riding sharks, an octopus playing drums, and Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews, voicing a terrifying beast from the darkest depths of the ocean. This is a silly movie and it’s proud to be so.
Momoa is again a complete ham as Arthur Curry, but this Arthur now has the screen time to deliver more than jokes and exclamations (though he still gets to do those). There are hero moments and romantic comedy beats and even a touch of brooding. Momoa’s chemistry with Heard is great, and with future films together, it will likely only improve. She herself is also a wonderful Mera, less angry and more just frustrated and so over Orm’s lies. Speaking of, Wilson brings just the right touch of camp to his performance as the megalomaniac, Orm. He works in a little sympathy, too, playing his villain big only when the scene calls for it. Working with Orm is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta and he is fantastic. Be excited this film heavily implies he returns in the sequel, because this is an actor and character to watch. As Arthur’s parents, Kidman and Morrison have a sweet chemistry, cementing their love story as the very heart of the movie. And Willem Dafoe turns in an understated but well-suited performance as Vulko, court advisor and Arthur’s mentor.
Is Aquaman the best supehero movie to release in 2018? Absolutely not, that’s Black Panther – a film with which Aquaman shares a lot in common, but is more traditional in how it executes its ideas. That being said, Aquaman is sure to please most audiences just by being a fun, silly romp through the ocean and across globe. Overflowing with action and laughs, Aquaman is the sort of movie to watch over the holiday break and just escape into its absurdity.