Through no real fault of his own, Aquaman’s status on the contemporary superhero landscape has been that of a punchline. His powers — breathing underwater, communicating with fish — aren’t exactly intimidating. Zack Snyder and Jason Momoa chose to present their Arthur Curry as more of an ex-jock Frat bro, rather than a majestic king with royal blood. Plus, a running joke regarding James Cameron’s Aquaman on the HBO series Entourage contributed to the DC’s hero’s whipping-boy reputation.
So there’s a delicious irony to the fact that James Wan’s epic, visually arresting and badass Aquaman movie — an adventure built around this ridiculed and meme-friendly savior — is the first DCEU feature to convince me that Warner Bros. and DC Comics finally are taking their contemporary comic-book properties seriously.
Let’s shower Aquaman with praise, and get all of the water-based puns out of the way. With James Wan captaining this massive ship, Aquaman sails through a colorful high-stakes adventure that plunges audiences into a vibrant, sci-fi-inspired deep-sea world. While connected to the overarching DCEU, Aquaman wisely branches off into its own unique corner of this universe and fills in its undersea world with eye-popping creatures, sleek space crafts and rarely-seen environments that reward a viewing on the biggest screen possible.
Jason Momoa, meanwhile, is given the opportunity to dive into the surprising depths of this previously superficial character, and the actor seizes the hero’s arc presented in this story. Aquaman also will make a massive splash at the box office, proving that DC should continue to explore rousing solo adventures for its unique superheroes (instead of foolishly chasing the shared universe model dominated by Marvel).
Aquaman serves as an origin story, not just for Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), but for the world he represents. We learn how his mother, Queen Atlanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), fell in love with surface dweller Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), and produced a child who’d have qualities of both worlds.
Under the sea, Shakesperean drama bubbles up as Arthur’s half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), launches a scheme to convince the seven kingdoms that it’s finally time to rise up and show the land citizens the power of those who occupy the water. Orm needs to unite all of the kingdoms if he’s to inherit the title of Ocean Master, giving him full control of the forces of the sea.
Orm’s job becomes much more difficult if Arthur should ever return to reclaim the throne that is his birthright. But as we saw in Justice League, Arthur’s content to bum around the coastal towns of our planet, drinking the equivalent of his body weight in stout beer and performing the occasional heroic act.
Two events change Arthur’s mind. First, Orm launches an attack on the surface, putting Arthur’s beloved father in danger. Mera (Amber Heard) uses this as motivation to guilt Arthur to finally return to Atlantis and challenge Orm for the throne. Secondly, a new threat in the form of the pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) rises, giving Aquaman a legit foil we expect will be explored in future movies.
Hiring James Wan is the key to Aquaman‘s success. The Conjuring director fearlessly embraces everything that comes with the hero, figuring out how to effectively stage underwater action, and choreographing impressively fluid fight sequences both on the land and in the sea. Water is integral to Aquaman’s story, and I’m certain there came a point when Wan got sick of everything having to be so wet on this set. But this movie plunges us into Aquaman’s realm, and it’s supremely effective.
Jason Momoa, meanwhile, eventually won me over as Arthur Curry. Without abandoning his “Bro-seidon” personality (Arthur Curry’s swagger is DC by way of the WWE), Momoa shoulders the cartoonish aspects of Aquaman — I mean, soldiers ride into battle on gigantic sea horses here, so c’mon people — and we begrudgingly accept the silliness of it all as Curry learns to embrace it.
Can the film tip too far into camp? You better believe it, and there certainly are eye-rolling moments and misguided laugh lines that thud, usually because Momoa’s comedic timing isn’t razor sharp. At one point, he describes himself as a blunt instrument, and the movie reduces itself to his simplicity every so often (but never enough to derail the swashbuckling adventure for any extended period of time).
Basically, Aquaman does what these DC solo movies should have been doing all along, which is celebrating what makes the hero in question unique, and dedicating all available resources into creating a vibrant, liveable world in which audiences will want to get lost (and return). Halfway through James Wan’s feature, I secretly wished that beneath the surfaces of our own oceans, an army of neon-glowing soldiers actually were riding sharks into battle with a platoon of crusty crab monsters, while a yellow-and-green warrior darted through the depths with his glowing trident, fighting to bring unity to a massive yet divided kingdom. In other words, I bought fully into the mythology that Wan and his team brought to the big screen, and what bigger compliment can one pay?
In a nutshell, Aquaman is a fun, exciting, imaginative, occasionally silly but undoubtedly epic adventure that establishes an incredibly rich new cinematic world and helps DC and Warner Bros. right their comic-book ship.