MOVIE REVIEW: Aquaman
There’s a whole bunch about Aquaman that shouldn’t work. Most movies set in water tend to be literal and figurative disasters. If that bust potential wasn’t bad enough, the DC Comics character created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger has carried long-held silly stigmas from every cartoon and television iteration and attempt since the 1960s depicting a worthless blond guy and glorified lifeguard who rides and talks to fishes next to his land-based buddies like Batman and Superman. Uninformed casual movie fans are going to think this Warner Bros. blockbuster is a copycat hodgepodge attempt at the superpowered royalty, family tree villainy, and hidden kingdom world-building of Thor and Black Panther.
Technically, like the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs predating the Star Wars and Avatar stories they inspired, the Aquaman character came first in comic lore, debuting 21 years before Thor and 25 before Black Panther. Shortsighted folks like that might as well be trying to watch the movie underwater without goggles. With the right lenses, the blurry becomes boisterous.
Bounding over land and sea across the oceanic globe, Aquaman is a bona fide comic book adventure with all the proper melodrama, pathos, heroics, and world-building amplified to a fantasy level of the highest order. James Wan’s crowd pleaser is a gushing rush of dazzling entertainment fully aware of its challenge to wash away decades of misplaced opinions and intentions. Enjoy bringing these action figures into a really big bathtub of flavored popcorn. For as fantastically cheesy as this movie is, its brassy and glossy pull is quite surprising.
Making up for rushing into things, Aquaman is an after-the-fact origin story trying to scrape the barnacles off of one of the few bright spots of last year’s Justice League. Jason Momoa’s swaggering mariner was born as Arthur Curry, the half-breed son of humble human lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and the gleaming platinum Atlanna (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, bringing true regality), the Queen of Atlantis. Forced betrothal and punished exile causes Atlanna to leave Thomas and Arthur when the boy was a young child. Though the hero may have been trained in secret by Atlantean royal advisor Nuidis Volko (an overused Willem Dafoe) during his formative years, Arthur grew independent and strong to renounce his birthright. Since defeating Steppenwolf alongside the other caped crusaders, Arthur has stepped out in more of a defender’s role, crossing paths with mercenary pirates like Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of The Greatest Showman).
LESSON #1: DON’T JUDGE PLACES YOU HAVEN’T SEEN — Hearing what Arthur thinks about Atlantis sight unseen based on the treatment of his mother pings this spoken lesson often in Aquaman. It is one clapped back to the Atlanteans as well for their shortsighted distaste for land-lubbers as well. As simplistic as this lesson is, it reverberates because peace cannot be achieved without judgments being changed.
Meanwhile, generations of intense nauti-politics besmirching the careless human treatment of ocean waters and its lifeforms has brewed unrest in the undersea kingdoms. Arthur’s younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson of Watchmen) seeks war against the surface and the title of Oceanmaster to controls the destructive armies and waves of this mounting strike. The only person within the formal bloodline capable of unseating him is the ostracized Arthur. It is an urgent fact of destiny pressed upon him by Mera (Amber Heard), the warrior daughter of Orm’s partnering leader King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, asserting himself even more after Creed II) dispatched to bring him to his proper home.
LESSON #2: THERE’S ALWAYS THIS ONE THING THE HERO NEEDS — In a blockbuster like this, a MacGuffin of sorts is necessary to keep the quest moving. In true genre fashion matching literature, video games, pulpy movies like the Indiana Jones and Transformers series, and the embedded Arthurian legend of the main character’s namesake, our hero must attain a certain item to put them over the top to defeat their nemesis. To best win the approval of the Atlantean people and ascend with proper power, Arthur must find the magical and sacred Trident of Atlan. This is a familiar narrative track made fresh with new fantastical obstacles.
Even the most initially optimistic fan and filmgoer will float in awe of how they pulled this off. The answer there is simple yet ballsy. Warner Bros. went big with every decision and cared little about predisposed expectations. Aquaman soared over daunting elements, from casting, special effects, creative designs, and more, that were thought to be impossible and costly hurdles preventing this character from ever gracing the silver screen convincingly. The resulting victorious risks led to production values that are eye-poppingly bold in one of the best looking special effects-driven action films of recent memory.
Vivaciously combining electronic rumbles with brassy thematic cues, composer Rupert Gregson-Williams lays down a flexing musical score that makes everything throb with excitement and importance. The wondrous costume designs of Kym Barrett (Cloud Atlas and The Matrix trilogy) rival the Oscar-worthy tribal creations of Black Panther as another example proving that comic book films deserve to be taken seriously on the Oscar stage next to period dramas and musicals in that category. The same goes for the bonkers degree of daring details in the bioluminescent neon playgrounds of the underworld settings created by the loyal Furious 7 team of visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain, production designer Bill Brzesk, and art directors Bill Booth and Desma Murphy. If James Cameron is going underwater, as rumored, for his Avatar sequels, he has now met a tough act to follow. Regular Robert Zemeckis lenser Don Burgess captures all of these rich visuals with cinematography that bronzes everything with a tan caused by bright and fitting hero lighting.
Further success continues with the glistening muscle and machismo filling the title role. Four years ago, Zack Snyder cast a multiracial badass in Jason Momoa instead of a Ken doll himbo. Many (including this writer) thought they picked the wrong guy. Look at Momoa. Then look at DC’s space-faring anti-hero Lobo and then look at the traditional Aquaman. Tell me your eyebrows don’t rise at little. We were so wrong. The Hawaiian-born 39-year-old dominates this title role with strength, enthusiasm (he might say “awesome” more than the cast of The LEGO Movie), and stature to never be a drop of the aloof and wimpy watery monarch too many lighter incarnations have shown. Momoa is granted worthy adversaries in Wilson and Mateen and a fetching partner on the briny battlefields and off with Heard.
The studio’s second coup was securing the services of director James Wan. The horror film specialist from the Saw and Conjuring franchises proved to us three years ago with what his edge and energy could be boosted by a big budget and channeled away from blood and torture. Wan’s rip-roaring punch elevated Furious 7, the Paul Walker swan song, into the highest-grossing chapter of that hit series. With Aquaman, Wan rivals the aforementioned Cameron with vision and totality and it is fun to watch him show off. The director demonstrates enormous initiative to orchestrate zillions of layers of technical prowess and mold this epic, thick mythology from the combined story and screenwriting team of Will Beall (Gangster Squad), David Leslie Johnson (The Conjuring 2), and DC Comics czar Geoff Johns into a massive recovery jolt for the DCEU that can stand proudly next to Wonder Woman in appeal and quality.
LESSON #3: BEING A HERO IS GREATER THAN BEING A KING — Monarchy is not earned. It is passed, meaning the respect is perfunctory unless the king or queen demonstrates the trait being wished upon and touted all movie: worthiness. That’s where heroes come. They capture hearts and go beyond titles with their actions and sacrifices. Royalty alone has merely dignified status. Heroes are revered legends. Cue the “why not both” GIF and you’ve got Aquaman.