Just a few years ago, Warner Bros. unveiled Batman v. Superman, a follow-up to 2013’s Man of Steel, the modern retelling of Superman. Forgoing the path laid out by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was decided to take Superman and place him against DC Comics‘ other most well-known (and *ahem* profitable) superhero, Batman. Meant to deliver on decades of fan anticipation of seeing the two together in live action, it served another purpose in kickstarting an interconnected series of films, replicating the success of the MCU. Featuring the cinematic debut of Wonder Woman and cameos from The Flash, Cyborg, and the hero of the deep, Aquaman, it stands today as a widely divisive film amongst moviegoers. Sure, the critically panned but financially successful Suicide Squad was part of this interconnection, but it wasn’t until the almost universally admired Wonder Woman film in 2017 that people began to think that maybe DC had it figured out. Then, later that year, Justice League was released. Meant as a furthering of their own world-building, it massively underperformed at the box-office and was disliked by many fans and critics alike; it surely kickstarted something else entirely: a scrambling series of studio executive meetings. With a full film schedule for years to come announced and some in production, things would have to change following this. Whatever direction those meetings and any more in the future will lead, one thing was already moving: the production of a solo feature for Aquaman, directed by James Wan and focusing on Jason Momoa as the title character.
So, while Wonder Woman‘s success has meant a sequel is on the way for her as a solo heroine, the underperformance of Justice League puts Aquaman in a weird spot, even before we see a single frame. Many problems existed in that film, but Momoa was sincerely one of the limited highlights, adding a sense of fun to an otherwise drab affair. While my review shows my frustrations with that film, even then, I hoped to see better things from him in the role. Having just watched this film that is centered on a character that has been constantly lampooned for his powers and persona for decades, I can say that it rises above all problems to become one of the best DC Comics films I’ve watched up to this point. After starring in a quickly forgotten reboot of Conan The Barbarian in 2011, Momoa‘s headlining of big-budget films once seemed to be long gone, but following his string of successes on TV and now this, it’s great to see him back in a true lead role, especially in a movie that showcases all the best attributes he brings as an actor and just as a screen presence.
In this film, we follow him as Arthur Curry, a reluctant hero known as Aquaman to the world, the child of two very different worlds. His father, Thomas (Temuera Morrison), saved his mother, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), from the point of death when she washed up at his lighthouse. When circumstances draw them apart, young Arthur is left with his father, wishfully wanting reunion with his mother even while actively avoiding his own birthright as the king of the underwater kingdoms of Atlantis. Still, his powers and abilities have allowed him to develop a reputation that echoes throughout the kingdom he shuns. His reticence to lead has left a power vacuum that his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), believes belongs to himself, a true-blood Atlantean. With a vengeful hatred of the surface-dwellers who pollute and destroy their world, Orm begins a quest to unite the seven aquatic kingdoms under his rule and to be appointed Ocean Master; this effort will surely lead to the deaths of millions of Atlanteans and humans alike. Following the enlistment of Mera (Amber Heard) and utilizing the training he received growing up from Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Aquaman must seek out a trident of legend to use to try and stop Orm from destroying life above and below the surface, while also dealing with a surface dwelling threat, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Maheen II), who has a deep vendetta against Aquaman.
Even that description may have reminded you of a few different movies, comic-book related or not, and guess what? You will definitely see reflections of other stories throughout that didn’t come across, even in what I shared. One thing that really got me about this movie is that, no matter how derivative or cliched various aspects were, this movie kept me going for various reasons: its epic fantasy/adventure film feel, the incredible color palette that felt vibrant and visually engaging, action sequences with a look and feel all their own, an electronic music score that sounds unique to most superhero films, and just an incredible sense of self-aware fun throughout. While that last point clashes often tonally with the more melodramatic seriousness of some scenes and characters, it just made this movie infinitely more enjoyable than much of the films it is connected to that preceded it. Reading that, you might think, “Oh well, that’s just them copying what Marvel does right”, but I was never drawing those conclusions while watching it. In fact, I didn’t think of Marvel as a comparison, which is likely one of the biggest compliments I can give this film.
The director, James Wan, has been quoted as saying that he wanted to forego tying this film closely together with other DC properties; instead, he sought to make this film its own thing from beginning to end. I think that extends to how the film looks and sounds. The closest film experience I can relate to much of what we see here is the strange, colorful world and amazing robust action of 2009’s Avatar. I can’t recall seeing so much blues, pinks, and purples in a film before, but the bioluminescence and variety of the ocean life are brought to life on-screen in genuinely beautiful ways. Being that this is a film with a plot (as most are prone to have), dialogue still has to occur underwater, and the film audibly accounts for it all (which admittedly may be difficult for some to understand clearly). It may not make sense scientifically, but that’s not what the filmmakers are trying to do. The sense of movement and space in the action sequences was dizzying in the all the right ways, and for the most part, even when the sequences lose you spatially, they never lose your interest. Wan was hired because of his action and horror film-making pedigree, and here, he finds ways to play in both those camps, while still giving us a better adventure film than last year’s reboot of The Mummy proved to be. His choice of framing and continuous action shots bring the comic-book feel to life, and he was an absolutely fantastic choice to helm this feature.
As alluded to, Momoa crushes it as the lead. The others in the cast each effectively play their parts to the fullest. While some films have a problem balancing multiple villains, I thought that this is a film that made it work with each possessing believable motivations. The problems some might have with each is that the way they play their parts may feel entirely different than other portions of the film. For instance, the villains are dead-serious throughout with humor nowhere to be seen regarding their characters, while Arthur and Mera are flirtier and funnier as the film goes along. It can be difficult to expect what’s coming next with the tone, and occasionally, there were choices with regard to licensed music (I’m looking straight at you, Pitbull) and just some scenes in general that stick out sorely. They didn’t completely derail the movie, but they did detract and distract. Couple that with a film that often jumps back and forth between scenes in the past, both near and ancient, to the current driving plot, and it can be a bit much at times.
Content-wise, I thought the language, while present, felt less crude than some of the other films, which is a plus. Sexual content really only involved minimal kissing; that said, Arthur is born out-of-wedlock and with parents from different cultures, I think it leaves audiences in a great place to discuss their own stories. Personally, I was born out-of-wedlock and estranged from my biological father; I couldn’t help while watching but think that this story could be very helpful to children who are mixed race or longing to know a parent that is absent. God can use people from all walks of life for His purposes, and I thought this film illustrates this. Violence is of the usual rock-em, sock-em variety, but there are sequences of epic battles and even some scarier encounters with sea dwellers. Each has some bloodshed, but there is nothing gratuitous. Some creatures may be particularly scary for kids, but overall, I think they will be dazzled by everything else to really worry about these for long. Themes of xenophobia and racial tensions feature, and by film’s end, I think it handles them well, even if it is all done lightly. Showing the strength that comes with being a merciful leader was also welcome and resonant.
Overall, I loved Aquaman. It’s predictable yet fun; it’s a worthy hero origin, but being that it’s this good for a hero so heavily chided for so long, it feels like even more of an accomplishment. While there won’t likely be any Justice League follow-up and we could likely see the complete shelving of so many other announced productions, I really hope to see audiences worldwide embrace this film. The runtime was longer than I expected, but I was never bored with what it brought to the experience. Arthur Curry has many more tales to tell, I feel, and with an ocean to rule, I’m ready for that vast potential to be realized by Momoa in the lead. If you come in expecting a fun time that is mostly free of the usual Easter-Eggs, I think you’ll find it here and be pleased.