The latest entry in Warner Bros. DC expanded universe is the most unabashed display of sci-fi silliness to date, and that is absolutely its greatest strength. Aquaman embraces its comic book roots and splashes the screen with a great wave of fantastical realms. Superman has Metropolis. Batman has Gotham City. Wonder Woman has Paradise Island. Aquaman? He has Star Wars. He has Flash Gordon. His undersea kingdom is a great final frontier far removed from the superhero language that is casually spewed in every other spandex blockbuster. Nothing you encounter from James Wan visually resembles the color palette or design work of the other Justice League members, and it is a gargantuan breath of fresh air.
Some may consider Arthur Curry to be a tough sell next to those other costumed playboys, but casting Jason Momoa as the King of the Seven Seas does half the job of dismissing any doubters. The man erupts charisma, and he rocks the spangly orange shirt so well that you’ll fool yourself into thinking you could pull the look off as well. You can’t. I know from experience.
For the majority of the film, Momoa charms his way through bar brawls, awkward undersea romances, and convoluted Atlantean politics worthy of The Phantom Menace. The cock of an eyebrow will swoon you through whatever required plot point, and send you reeling into the next action set-piece. This ain’t your daddy’s Aquaman, and that’s totally o.k. More importantly, this ain’t Zack Snyder’s gloomy Gus badass.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for ‘Aquaman.’
After a wicked battle between Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his squad of Atlantean goons atop the rooftops of Sicily, Aquaman and Mera (Amber Heard) escape to the darkest depths of the ocean. They seek the all-powerful Trident of Atlan, the first king. Legend states that whoever wields the weapon will rule over the many undersea kingdoms as Ocean Master.
Following the instructions of the ancient holographic map they discovered beneath the Sahara desert, they believe the location of the Trident resides within the realm of The Trench. Their ship is quickly overrun by a swarm of Trench citizens. Punching their way through a vicious array of sharp teeth and slicing fins, Aquaman and Mera propel themselves into waters few other living beings have ever plundered.
At the bottoms of The Trench they discover a whirling portal of light, and once they pass through it, they are transported to The Hidden Sea at the Earth’s Core. Here is the dreamland of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a magical land where tyrannosauruses still roam the jungle and pterodactyls swoop from the skies. Even more wonderous, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) still lives as a warrior woman decked in the bones of Trench monsters.
Apparently, when she was sacrificed to The Trench for crimes against Atlantis, Atlanna made her way to The Hidden Sea via the portal and was trapped there by the monstrous Karathen (Julie Andrews). The aquatic monster guards the remains of King Atlan as well as his mystical trident, but Arthur is not discouraged in the face of yet another world-ending titan. He swims defiantly towards the trident and goes a few rounds with Karathen’s tentacles.
The beast is surprised when Arthur reveals his ability to communicate with her as well as all sea life. Such powers can only mean that he is worthy of harnessing the might of Atlan’s trident. Karathen says that if he can lift the object, then he may wield it. Arthur has his sword in the stone moment, yanks it from the dead king’s grip, and returns wearing the classic orange and green armor. Shiny yet still badass. We should never have doubted the look.
With the Trident at his side, Aquaman wages war on his wicked half-brother Orm, who has prematurely taken on the mantle of Ocean Master and adorned his own colorful armor. The armies of Atlantis halt their attack on the Kingdom of the Brine when Aquaman launches a barrage of sharks, whales, and fish their way. Witnessing a man impaled on a narwhal may be the height of Aquaman action.
Arthur lures Orm out of the sea where they can do battle atop an Atlantean vessel. Fratricide never occurs as Arthur yields before he can land a killing blow. Queen Atlanna emerges from the ocean and reveals to her youngest son that she is still alive and has sided with Team Aquaman. Emotionally devastated, Orm glumly submits to chains and is escorted to prison by his former adviser (Willem Dafoe).
Aquaman accepts his mantle as King of Atlantis and raises the Trident so that all the oceanic kingdoms can see his bravado. As every man, woman, and fish pledge their allegiance to Mamoa so does the audience. Arthur Curry takes his rightful place next to the more obvious badass heroes of the DC Extended Universe. Bring on the next team-up.
Fade to black; we tap our fingers on the armrest while we wait for the inevitable post-credits tag. Adrift on a chunk of wood floating on the Adriatic Sea, Black Manta is rescued by a fishing vessel. His suit of armor is shattered and useless. He’s failed his mission of vengeance against Aquaman for the killing his father. What’s a villain to do?
Thankfully, he’s fallen into the hands of Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park). The fear-mongering scientist has spent years warning landlubbers of the threat that resides within the deep, and now he has an agent of chaos for a potential partner. The character originally appeared in Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis’ New 52 relaunch and was a duplicitous little sneak.
Shin will never rise to a threat level requiring an Aquaman smackdown, but he’s set up here as the big brain that will guide Black Manta back into the ring. In the comics, Shin’s actions led to the epic crossover event “Throne of Atlantis” which was adapted into an animated adventure a few years ago. Still, I wouldn’t expect Park to branch out beyond a comedic jerk.
Aquaman is a hoot of a movie that succeeds best when it’s surrounding the audience in great fantasy vistas and unleashing that great Jason Momoa charisma. Magical tridents and lost lands, James Wan rolls with it. The post-credits tag is not a large promise a la Thanos or Steppenwolf, but it does say if you like what you’ve seen here there is plenty more on its way.