'Aquaman' Review: James Wan Steers the DC Universe to Weird, Wild Success

Aquaman is a movie that shouldn’t work. You’ve got Nicole Kidman eating a live goldfish in one scene, and an octopus playing the bongos in another — plus an absurd number of men sticking their heads down toilets (actually it’s just once, but it feels like a bit that goes on forever). And yet James Wan’s aquatic comic book movie is a total blast to watch.

On the heels of his scene-stealing introduction in last year’s Justice League, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman finally gets his own solo outing in an epic, sprawling adventure that is more than a match for his wild surfer bro superhero that spawned so many memes. Wan has managed to build an entire movie around Momoa’s laid-back hyper-masculine persona and uses it as a launchpad to create a staggeringly ambitious, visually overwhelming movie that crashes into you like a tidal wave.

Aquaman follows the half-human, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry as he begrudgingly sets out to claim his rightful place as king of Atlantis after his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) declares war on the surface world following a perceived attack on the secret underwater kingdom. With the human race threatened with global extinction, the surly Arthur Curry has no choice but to team up with the Atlantean warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard) on a quest to retrieve the Trident of Atlan, a mythical object that can only be found by the true king of Atlantis. The parallels to Arthurian legends aren’t a coincidence: Arthur’s lighthouse keeper father Thomas (Temuera Morrison) is the one to suggest to Queen Atlanna (Kidman) that they name him after “one of our kings.”

Yes, it’s all rather on the nose, but everything about this movie takes a sledgehammer to subtlety: from the dialogue, to the acting, to the musical cues, to the dramatic camera pans whenever Arthur strikes his superhero pose. This is a movie that has Kidman declaring with a straight face, “Where I come from, the sea carries our tears away.” It’s cheesy to the nth degree, to the point that it almost becomes self-parody; blissfully, Aquaman doesn’t take itself too seriously. Aquaman recalls Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies in its balance of campy artifice with genuine sincerity. Except Aquaman gets way more gonzo.

From beginning to end, Aquaman is firing on all cylinders. It swings from romantic-comedy moments — to some success with Morrison and Kidman in charming flashbacks to their first meeting in which Queen Atlanna eats the aforementioned fish, and to less success with Momoa and Heard who have approximately negative chemistry — to high fantasy, to palace intrigue, to grand Indiana Jones-style sequences. But the most exciting and visually stunning elements arrive when Wan flexes his horror muscles and the film descends into a Lovecraftian nightmare. The eldritch horror of the Trench creatures that terrorize Arthur and Mera in the latter half of the movie is unlike anything I’ve seen in a tentpole superhero film.

Despite some of the questionable nature of the CGI in Aquaman‘s marketing, Wan is not slacking on the rest of the visuals. The vast underwater world of Atlantis is positively lavish, popping with vibrant, neon colors and bonkers creature designs. The effects are breathtaking — Mera’s water-bending powers in particular are magical, while Arthur’s frequently mocked ability to talk to fish (which are actually lent some narrative weight!) straddle the line between goofy and cool. This is a world where an octopus can play the bongos and you will buy it, because Wan has achieved a level of weirdness that you would expect studio executives to clamp down on. But like Wonder Woman before it, Aquaman exists in its own brightly colored corner of this universe. And with a whole world to play in, star Jason Momoa surfs into the audience’s affections.

If you hadn’t already been taken with Momoa’s Aquaman in Justice League, you will be after Aquaman. Momoa delivers the kind of hammy performance that shows a supreme self-confidence — or just suggests that he is having a ball. His jovial attitude is infectious, spilling out through the screen and daring you not to crack a smile when he cheekily delivers lines like, “Permission to come aboard?” Sadly his infectious attitude doesn’t extend to the majority of the cast, who are given the task of playing straight men to Momoa’s hotheaded fighter. Willem Dafoe pulls some impressively crazed faces — and pulls off a man-bun — as the Atlantean counselor Nuidis Vulko, who trains Arthur behind King Orm’s back, at the behest of the missing Queen Atlanna. Wilson is suitably severe as King Orm, while Dolph Lundgren sports a shock bright ginger hair as King Nereus, and just kind of…uh, floats around. Heard does her best to lend sympathy to the fastidious Mera, who is largely stuck with harrumphing about Arthur’s sophomoric antics. The Atlantis characters are probably the weakest parts of this film, saddled with a political intrigue storyline that drags under the weight of the world-building. Apart from scheming and battling Arthur, Orm’s arc mostly consists of raising armies from seven realms of Atlantis. Not exactly the most cinematic stuff.

Yet Yahya Abdul-Mateen II impresses as Black Manta — a high-seas mercenary who seeks revenge on Arthur Curry for the death of his father — outshining Wilson as the more compelling villain, despite remaining largely superfluous to the plot. Kidman is the main standout in the cast apart from Momoa, playing Atlanna like a half-primitive, half-regal spin on the Amphibian Man from The Shape of Water. Again, and I can’t state this often enough, she eats a live goldfish.

Wan manages to marry Arthurian fantasy and swashbuckling adventure with camp in Aquaman, a film that feels a little like a miracle in Warner Bros.’ catalogue of superhero movies. Left to its own devices and mostly unconnected from the films that came before it, Aquaman is one of the weirdest, oddball blockbuster superhero movies ever.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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