James Wan’s Aquaman benefits greatly from lowered expectations. The very notion of this character getting a big-screen solo effort always seemed kind of silly. Entourage took the piss out of the watery superhero years ago, and the trailer did little more than spout exposition while throwing in Avatar-style eye candy. The whole things looked to crash, tsunami-like, into a bloated, self-serious mess.
Despite all these concerns, Wan and his screenwriters manage to wrestle the beast into a truly engaging work. Seen in 3D and laser projected in IMAX, the film is a wonderland of images, from space-battle-like confrontations to wide desert vistas and craggy rock outcrops. Underwater settings mix the archaic with the aquatic, making for a Gladiator-meets-Finding Nemo aesthetic that somehow bridges that gap.
Finally the casting of Jason Momoa truly makes sense. The actor’s physical stature has of course always impressed, but here his timing is impeccable and his charms are more obvious when he’s given some clever repartee. Joined by Amber Heard, who provides ample fierceness and red-headed rebelliousness, the pair truly rise to the challenge.
Temuera Morrison, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, and Nicole Kidman provide ensemble color and genuinely give the film some dimension. Yahya Abdul-Mateen plays an interesting pirate character who soon turns into a powerful villain with thanks to some underwater tech. And the Dolph Lundgrenaissance continues; the square-jawed Swede proves kingly riding astride a seabeast.
Narratively, the film borrows from seemingly endless sources. I saw echoes of everything from all four Indiana Jones movies, Jurassic Park, The Perfect Storm, Splash, and a smidge of The Little Mermaid, not to mention the Star Wars franchise and practically every other space-battle film. Yet this swarm of connections seems more organic than usual, clicking off familiar tropes while still feeling fresh.
Yes, we get a story of a reluctant half-breed heir to the crown fighting against his younger sibling (a literal reversal of the fish-out-of-water shtick) to restore justice to a kingdom he’s never known. There’s love interests, big battles, narrative twists, and Herculean trials to overcome. The movie is littered with both mythological and cinematic references, but thanks to the charm of the performances and the precision of execution, we’re treated to something that’s considerably more than the sum of its parts.
Wan’s camera is particularly energetic, with an opening fight scene that’s practically balletic. As the scope of the film changes, so too does the visual language, yet Wan manages to keep things clear and coherent throughout. The underwater sequences have a subtle dance of distortion that’s perfectly dialed-in to make the action feel unsettled without inducing motion sickness.
There are also fine allusions to Momoa’s Polynesian heritage, from his haka-inspired moves to the affection he shows his father, forehead to forehead. It’s subtle, but the coding is appropriate and welcome.
All told, Aquaman manages to swim out of its seemingly spare source. It’s a brash, ambitious, creatively fulfilling piece that’s a far cry from the dour stuff that the DC universe has been known for lately. I’ve got no pony in the race between the mega-franchise comic book studios. Each time out, I’m simply looking for a movie that can stand on its own, tell a story that entertains, and use the tools of blockbuster cinema to do something engaging and fun.
By this and any other measure, Aquaman is a success. The film makes the most out of its fine cast and psychedelic imagery and remembers to have some fun along with the world building.