Don’t mess with Aquaman or you might end up sleeping with the fishes.
I would apologise for that lame one-liner but it aptly sums up what Warner Bros. has gotten right and what went wrong with the movie adaptation of DC’s aquatic superhero.
Taking a leaf out of the Wonder Woman (see our review) playbook, Aquaman is an origin story that traces Arthur Curry’s (Jason Momoa) more current struggles as the protector of the ocean and reluctant heir to the throne of Atlantis, which is interspersed with narrated flashbacks of his parents’ love story and a sometimes troubled childhood.
Arthur is the forbidden child of two worlds – his mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), an Atlantean princess, fled an arranged marriage and swam straight into the arms of a human lighthouse keeper. She returned to Atlantis when Arthur was just a toddler in an attempt to protect him, married her betrothed and bore him a son. But Alanna was sentenced to death when her “discretion” was discovered.
This is the source of Arthur’s angst with the underwater societies. And despite his best efforts, he gets dragged back into the fray when his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) seeks to control the seven seas and wage war on the surface world.
Arthur is aided by Mera (Amber Heard), an Atlantean noblewoman, and his childhood mentor Vulko (Willem Defoe). But also complicating matters is the pirate known as Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) who seeks revenge on Aquaman for a personal loss.
If Justice League is DC’s attempt at an answer to Marvel’s Avengers then Aquaman has parallels with Thor. Both feature ridiculously brawny protagonists with preternatural abilities, conniving brothers with dangerous ambitions and are set in worlds so fanciful that they’re almost cartoonish. With such an outlandish story, it becomes clear that Aquaman can’t go down the same dark, gritty path as its Man of Steel (see our review) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (see our review) predecessors so director James Wan has rightly packaged the movie as an unapologetic balls-to-the-wall fantasy adventure.
The visuals are stunning, especially the luminescent city of Atlantis which brings to mind the sublime beauty of sci-fi epics by Luc Besson. The action is breathtaking and peppered with tongue-in-cheek humour that makes the film feel much more buoyant than the other DC flicks. In this respect, Wan has done Aquaman a service by giving it a distinct personality that sets it apart from the rest.
By extension, getting Momoa to play the titular character is inspired casting. This tall tattooed hunk with a wrestler’s physique and sun-kissed Polynesian looks is a timely update (and upgrade!) from the basic blonde of the comics who, let’s face it, has always been the butt of many jokes.
For all his charms, Momoa still looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with and this deflects some of the goofiness of a character whose claim to fame is that he can breathe under water and talk to sea creatures.
But these positive qualities can only take the movie so far before the usual DCEU problems start to kick in. While Wilson’s performance as King Orm is still watchable, the character suffers from poor writing – again, we are inflicted with yet another cartoon villain who doesn’t show any layers beyond the desire to take over the world.
There is also a jarring pacing issue in which the first half of the movie is bogged down by some tedious world-building and the story really only takes off past the midpoint, which is too late in reel time.
Even though it’s understood that Wan is embracing the fun ludicrousness, Aquaman does start to feel like an empty spectacle devoid of actual emotional and – dare I say it – intellectual depth.
There are several moments when the film has the potential to explore relevant ecological issues and give the audiences some food for thought but Wan and team never fulfill that promise.
And if that’s the case, it’s hard to accept the movie as anything more than just brainless fun.
Aquaman is out in cinemas now. Have you seen it? Tell us what you think of the movie below!