By Bill Mazzola
December 24, 2018
Yep, he’s the superhero that talks to fish. He can breathe underwater and swim really fast. Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman has historically been so cornball, even the possibility of an Aquaman movie was the butt of a season-long joke on HBO’s Entourage. Nevertheless, the “King of the Seven Seas” has his first solo movie– and guess what? It’s almost jaw-droppingly cheesy. It’s got corny one-liners. It has people riding seahorses. It has Julie Andrews voicing a Kraken (no, I’m not kidding). But here’s the key– both director James Wan, and his titular star, Jason Momoa, are all too aware of the inherent cheesiness– and that’s why Aquaman is so much damn fun to watch.
For the better part of a century, DC Comics has been the home of colorful heroes, incredibly on-the-nose zingers, and stories that contain so many otherworldly elements that it’s hard to keep them straight. In recent years the filmmakers behind Superman’s solo outings, the much-maligned Justice League film, and even Wonder Woman have, to a degree, veered away from that DC craziness– unwilling to completely buy in. Aquaman, however, jumps in with both feet.
There is an absolute ton of locations, battles and freaky sea creatures crammed into this movie and, although there are moments when the boat seems to be taking on too much water, James Wan skillfully manages to keep it from sinking. The story is both complex and clunky, and the pacing is choppy. In particular, there’s a sequence in the middle of the film involving Aquaman looking for a mythical trident with his lady friend Mera (Amber Heard, who looks like a badass version of Ariel from The Little Mermaid), that probably could have been shorter. There is an almost insane amount of cringe-inducing dialogue and a plethora of smoldering looks directed to the camera littered throughout the film, but Wan never takes his foot off the gas, embracing everything that Aquaman is– reveling in both the good and the bad.
Wan spends a good chunk of time in this film world building, and Atlantis is a spectacle to behold. It looks like something out of Middle Earth, only underwater. There is dazzling architecture and all kinds of strange underwater creatures at every turn. There were high expectations for the special effects in this film and it delivers in spades.
The cast around Momoa is, for the most part, very good. Amber Heard has the role of the straight-laced partner to our wilder hero. She manages to pull off both the exposition heavy dialogue and the cutesy moments with Arthur we all know are coming. We have two villains in the piece: one on land, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who looks cool but can be lifted from the movie without it changing much, and one in the sea, Aquaman’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) who is threatening a full-scale Atlantean invasion of the surface world that Arthur must stop. Because that’s what heroes do.
Rounding out the cast are the imposing Dolph Lundgren as Mera’s father, King Nereus. Oscar winner Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mother Atlanna, the exiled Queen of Atlantis. She doesn’t have all that much to do but, after seeing her in so many heavy dramas, it’s a joy to see her cut loose and have fun. And not to be left out, an earnest Willem Dafoe shows up as Arthur’s loyal mentor, Vulko, putting his steely gaze to good use.
Wan is a skilled craftsman when it comes to action films but make no mistake, this movie lives and dies on the charisma of its lead actor. Jason Momoa more than carries this film on his broad shirtless shoulders. Like it or not, we are living in the age of the superhero film and, to this point, it is hard to imagine an actor who has embraced his role more than Momoa. He takes a largely cheesy, ignored character in comic book lore, injects him with a big dose of irreverence, and an even bigger dose of physicality. His performance is so knowingly gleeful, it’s hard not to get caught up in the wave. We got a small taste of what this Aquaman was in Justice League, and here we get a more multi-dimensional character, one who deftly balances the more emotional moments with the rockstar ones. Seeing an actor so invested in both nailing his role and having a good time is a pleasure to watch.
While trying to sum up this film, I kept coming back to one word: fun. It’s just a boatload of fun. It is clear that Wan and Momoa made this film with an abundance of joy, didn’t take themselves too seriously, and made a film that reflects that spirit. If you’re looking for the Citizen Kane of superhero films, you might want to pass this one by. If you’re looking for a good time– put on your trunks, grab a snorkel– and dive in.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5