DC’s Extended Universe has hit more than a few bumps in its effort to create something akin to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but while certain decisions are indefensible — the rush towards team-up films, the lack of long-term plan, the existence of Suicide Squad — it’s easy to forget that their two standalone films (Man of Steel, Wonder Woman) are terrifically entertaining successes. All five of their films have made money, but it’s the titles focused exclusively on a single hero that have shown the promise of what DC’s big-screen comic adaptations can truly accomplish. Aquaman is their third such effort, and some waterlogged script issues aside it’s a big blast of fun, personality, and batshit insanity.
The film opens on the coast of Maine in 1985 as a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) finds a spandex and shell-clad woman unconscious at the water’s edge. She’s Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis, and having skipped out on an arranged marriage she instead starts a new life with Tom. They have a child together, but when an elite commando unit from Atlantis arrives in pursuit she’s forced to return to the undersea kingdom. Arthur (Jason Momoa) grows up a “half-breed” with a connection to the land and skills beneath the ocean — he can breathe/talk underwater, swim very fast, communicate with sea creatures, and more. His relatively peaceful life is interrupted with news that King Orm (Patrick Wilson), his [cough] younger step-brother, is planning an undersea uprising to attack humankind. His hand forced, Arthur — dubbed Aquaman by fans and observers worldwide — heads back to Atlantis to prevent a war.
Aquaman is director James Wan‘s first foray into the world of superheroes — although it could be argued that Furious 7‘s willful ignorance of human physiology and the laws of physics probably counts — and he unsurprisingly shows himself more than capable of tackling the story’s scope and audacious visuals. He’s let down by a weak and derivative script, but he manages to lift the film up again at every turn with thrilling action beats and some truly bonkers imagery. Once the fairly generic setup gets Aquaman into the ocean the movie reveals one ridiculous, smile-inducing visual delight after the next. Every time you think things can’t get nuttier, they do.
This is easily the silliest of the DCEU’s three standalone hero films, and while plenty of serious beats exist here they rarely stay the focus for long. Character gags, action sequences, and utter zaniness are always seconds away from popping into frame leaving no time to dwell on heavier themes raised. Orm tries, of course, as he points out humanity’s destructive and violent ways and his warning shot against the surface dwellers sends all of the trash we’ve let swirl in the ocean back up onto shore along with warships around the globe. (Add him to the list of movie villains whose motives are difficult to find fault with…) This bigger picture is quickly reined in, though, to focus on the brotherly beef.
The screenplay really is the film’s most glaring issue as writers David Leslie-Johnson McGoldrick and Will Beall seem boxed in by superhero films that preceded them. Parental issues! Women can’t be kings! A very special and legendary weapon! The similarities with the likes of Black Panther and Thor are numerous and notable. A familial challenger to the throne, the belief that one is responsible for the death of the other’s parent, a physical brawl to determine the king, the loser is believed dead, and so on. Worse than the familiarity, though, is the script’s approximation of human (and inhuman) dialogue. More than anything else, DC needs to find writers who understand how people actually speak — because this ain’t it.
Were this a drama reliant strictly on character interaction and story it would be a lost cause, but comic books and film are visual mediums and Wan is here to take full advantage of that. Atlantis and the other undersea kingdoms — that’s right, there are also fish people, grumpy hermit crabs, and more — are memorably eye-catching in their design and functionality, and there’s not a dull moment to be found in the film’s 143 minute running time. Visual inspirations run the gamut from The Abyss to Tron, from Journey to the Center of the Earth to Humanoids from the Deep, and from steampunk to Lovecraftian. It’s an underwater fantasy world as diverse and spectacular as you could hope for, and it’s one that keeps on giving with real and imagined creatures, unexpected locales, and a wild sense of creativity.
Wan doesn’t skimp on the action either and instead packs the film with several exciting set-pieces that put Aquaman, Atlanna, and Mera (Amber Heard) through their paces. CG is occasionally dodgy, but most of it works well in conjunction with Wan’s camera movements and visual energy. Some fun close-quarters brawls liven up a submarine-set sequence early on, and things build to an epic undersea battle involving vehicles, humanoids riding whales, giant seahorses, armed sharks, and more. One action highlight is a terrific chase/fight across rooftops in a small Italian town that features impact, excitement, and some small-scale destruction.
Momoa is a charismatic performer making Aquaman a rabble-rouser with a begrudging heart, and he sells both the action and humor well. The supporting cast does good work with less fleshed-out characters — Morrison lands the film’s only real emotional moments, and it’s never a bad thing seeing Willem Dafoe in spandex and a man-bun. Dolph Lundgren gets more screen-time than you’re expecting, and between this and Creed II it’s great seeing him on the big screen again. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II turns in an aggressively good performance as the newly vengeful Black Manta, and we even get a fun little Leigh Whannell cameo. And honestly, who among us can resist a Depeche Mode needle drop?
It’s easy to knock the DCEU after misfires like Justice League, but they’re only six films in as of right now. To put it in perspective, Thor: The Dark World was Marvel’s eighth movie. Mmhmm. DC’s had some growing pains, but there’s still time for their universe to find a more consistent path with efforts devoted to single heroes who get to be the focus of their own film. Aquaman is another step in the right direction as a big, fun piece of pop entertainment that rewards fans and newcomers alike, and it’s enough to leave you excited about future DC films. (Well, aside from next year’s Joker, obviously.)