Who’d have thought we would get a well-received Aquaman movie before a Superman or Batman one? After what can only be described as a messy initial phase of their Comic Book Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. have done what they should have done from the start; let the creators do their thing. Cause it seems to work. Whereas films like ‘Suicide Squad’ and ‘Justice League’ are riddled with studio notes and input, resulting in middling returns and reception; films like ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Aquaman’ which have a singular, creative vision, stand apart from the usual superhero fare and produce results.
‘Aquaman’ follows Arthur Curry on his journey of self-acceptance as he learns to embrace both sides of his family, his responsibility and his title; King of the Seven Seas. He must travel with Mera in search of the Trident of Atlan, in hopes of defeating his half-brother, the tyrannical Orm. Think ‘Black Panther’ with fish people.
While many draw comparisons between this film and similar Marvel films such as the aforementioned ‘Black Panther’ or ‘Thor’, ‘Aquaman’ is its own entity. The action is some of the most impressive action set pieces in a comic book movie; the visual effects and design are stunning and crave to be seen on the biggest screen possible; and it isn’t afraid to embrace the weirdness of the source material, unlike other superhero films.
Bringing to life the kingdom of Atlantis and the rest of the underwater world is no small feat, and it is a stunning display, with bright vivid colours reminiscent of ‘Blade Runner’ and unique designs that incorporate sea life in a ‘Flinstones’-esque manner (sea turtles as cargo carriers, octopuses as musical performers). The copious amounts of effects could have hurt the movie in a way similar to ‘Justice League’ but here it is breathtaking in bringing something impossible to life.
The action is a refreshing mixture of fast-paced choreography and creative camera techniques, whether it be lengthy tracking shots across the rooftops of Italy, or the tense showdown between the rival brothers. Director James Wan knows the stunt team and actors are capable of performing these sequences and doesn’t hesitate to show it off. Wan also delivers a punch with an actual fist instead of the bombastic, CGI heavy fights of previous DC films and even Marvel films that lack weight.
Since his infamous portrayal in the 70s cartoon ‘Super Friends’, Aquaman has been the butt of many a joke, within and outside the nerd circles. A guy that rides sea horses is nowhere near as cool as a guy in a tight black costume with a prepubescent boy in short shorts. Right? Well, Wan throws that notion away, especially in the final act which is an epic, fantasy battle that rivals ‘Lord of the Rings’ for scale and ‘Game of Thrones’ for intensity. Also, casting Jason Mamoa will make anyone think twice before they question his flowing locks and tattooed muscles as intimidating. Mamoa makes a possibly dry character (see what I did there?), charismatic enough, that you’ll enjoy the ride he takes you on. Even when it drags.
The film crams a lot of story, backstory, lore, characters, established or not, into a 2 hour and 24-minute runtime, the 3rd longest runtime for the DCEU. The film takes about 30 minutes before it truly begins. The first 30 minutes is preamble and a rough set-up, before explaining who everyone is properly and what is going on. The first act is definitely the weakest part of the movie and could use a simplification and trim of about 20 minutes off the overall run time. Once the movie begins its adventure, it kicks into gear and becomes far more enjoyable.
Wan has been quoted in saying films like ‘Romancing the Stone’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ were an inspiration for his take on ‘Aquaman’, and it shows. Aquaman and Mera hop around the globe in search of the Trident, visiting the staples of an adventure film; a desert, some ruins, a temple, and an exotic location. Even Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score has an 80s influence to it, with heavy uses of synth and electric guitars, which are another way the film stands apart from the generic superhero origin films. Wan’s citation of classic adventure films is no accident especially in how Aquaman and Mera interact. Their disdain for one another (and eventual attraction) feels reminiscent of Indy and Marion’s in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. While the romance may seem forced, the chemistry between Mamoa and Amber Heard is strong enough that it can be overlooked.
The rest of the characters, while not always fully developed, are enjoyable enough for more use in an inevitable sequel. William Dafoe’s Vulko is a typical mentor figure, and Nicole Kidman and Temura Morrison are passable as Arthur’s parents (while their own accents may not be). The villains of the film, Black Manta and Orm, are interesting in their own ways. Black Manta is a secondary villain, that is built up for the sequel, who is menacing and who’s origin is an interesting spin on the comic version, but is initially, a little clunky in its execution. Orm, or Ocean Master, is not compelling like a Thanos or Loki, but is enjoyable like Red Skull, in that Patrick Wilson chews the scenery enough to be entertaining without being too cringe worthy.
The entire film walks that fine line of melodramatic and goofy surprisingly well, that when it becomes serious, it isn’t ‘eye-rolling’ bad but feels self-aware when it cuts to a kraken voiced by Julie Andrews. The film embraces its weird source to its benefit, as it feels less like ‘Man of Steel’ and more like ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ but with more emotion, and better executed.
‘Aquaman’ dives straight into its wackiness and never comes up for air. Mamoa and Heard are electric in a brisk adventure story; Wilson sneers into the role but has some extra depth. The movie is drowning in stunning visuals and action scenes that propel the movie to the surface of superhero solo movies and saves it from sinking.