Review: "Aquaman" is two-and-a-half hours of dumb, frothy fun
“Aquaman” is the sixth film in the DC Extended Universe, following on the heels of four films that range from mediocre to atrocious (“Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Suicide Squad,” “Justice League”) and one of the best superhero films not just of the last decade but of all time (“Wonder Woman”). Unsurprisingly, the overall abysmal quality of the franchise has led countless think pieces to ponder how it might be fixed. While I profess to be no authority, I’ve always found that solutions demanding the original director’s cut of “Justice League” or advocating for an alternate-universe reboot both miss precisely what made Wonder Woman” exceptional.
The overt feminism that drove the film was undoubtedly its most important cultural contribution, yet it crucially rested on the bedrock of solid storytelling and compelling characters. “Wonder Woman” stood out by focusing on the best possible version of an origin story for a single, engaging character; even the best solo films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can’t possibly dream of returning to such streamlined simplicity. Simply put, the MCU has mastered the shared universe, and rather than try to beat them at their own game, the DCEU would be wise to forge ahead using “Wonder Woman” as a model for future endeavors.
For this reason alone, the prospect of “Aquaman” excited me when I left the movie theater after seeing “Wonder Woman” for the first time. Admittedly, my expectations plummeted in the intervening two years, but it seems that my initial enthusiasm was largely warranted. By and large, “Aquaman” manages to successfully integrate the lessons learned from “Wonder Woman.” Is it as good as “Wonder Woman”? Of course not. But it also must be said that the comparison doesn’t feel entirely fair. After all, different films have different aims, and using a universal metric to measure the quality of every film is myopic. “Wonder Woman” succeeds in no small part thanks to its sincerity and self-seriousness. Burdened with the challenge to make the first good female-led superhero film, director Patty Jenkins clearly believed that Diana’s status as an icon of female empowerment made her story worth telling with the utmost humility and respect. Conversely, while “Aquaman” is sincere in its own way, it makes no effort to take itself seriously. It is a camp classic waiting to happen, a film that is simultaneously self-aware of its own ludicrousness and oddly proud of that very quality. During the build-up to a fight between Aquaman (the alias for his alter-ego Arthur Curry) and his half-brother Orm (because superhero films do so love their Oedipal-esque family conflicts), the film cuts away to show us that an octopus has been playing the drums that have served as the scene’s dramatic accompaniment this whole time. Such unabashed bizarreness is characteristic of the entire film.
Speaking of Arthur and Orm, what’s the plot of “Aquaman”? In the 1980s, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a princess from Atlantis, flees her home and is found by Thomas Curry, a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison). They have a son, Arthur, who as a half-breed isn’t welcomed by the rather bigoted Atlanteans. Eventually Atlanna is forced to return home, gives birth to Orm and is subsequently executed when her husband learns about Arthur. Fast forward to after the events of “Justice League”; Orm is now King of Atlantis, hates pollution and decides to declare war on the surface world. But to do this, he has to get at least four of the seven underwater kingdoms to rally to his cause, even though two of them are basically extinct. Moreover, if Orm can rally a majority to his side, he’ll become “Ocean Master” — whatever that even means. So his betrothed, Mera (Amber Heard), recruits Arthur (Jason Momoa) to stop Orm before it’s too late. Together they go looking for the mythic Trident of Atlantis to prove that Arthur is the rightful king of Atlantis. And in the midst of all that, there’s a subplot about a pirate known as Black Manta who wants revenge on Aquaman for failing to prevent his father’s death. Confused? That’s just the tip of the iceberg, ladies and gentlemen!
“Aquaman” is what happens when a script keeps getting rewritten by writers who think, “You know what could really improve this? More lore!” That certainly explains why the plotting feels so convoluted and the dialogue so blunt. In particular, the Black Manta subplot really should have been excised well before cameras started rolling. It’s not bad, it just isn’t fluidly woven into the rest of the story.
To their credit, director James Wan and his cast never seem encumbered by a script that is in desperate need of better writers. The narrative strains under the weight of its own excess, but Wan directs each scene with a light, deft touch. The action set-pieces are among the best in the DCEU, the humor mostly lands and the emotional beats actually manage to be heartfelt.
Likewise, the actors approach the material with just the right combination of bemusement and gung-ho willingness. Momoa is far from the world’s most nuanced actor, but he has swagger, confidence and charisma to spare. Moreover, he knows to let his seasoned co-stars — Kidman, Morrison, Willem Dafoe — do the heavy lifting. The film’s real stand-out, though, is Heard’s Mera; she’s charming, vulnerable and fierce, and Heard gives her a quiet determination that resonates. Patrick Wilson, on the other hand, is perfectly smarmy as Orm, but he’s a tad too one-note.
Nevertheless, neither Wilson’s performance nor the unwieldy script can sink “Aquaman.” As flawed as it may be, it’s 2 1/2 hours of unadulterated fun. It’s a giant swashbuckling adventure that must have been a massive technical pain to bring to life, yet the final result feels effortless. It’s frothy (pun-intended) and lacks the substance that made “Wonder Woman” so special, but that’s just fine. I’m okay with my superhero fare sometimes just being fun for the sake of fun.
More than anything else though, “Aquaman” indicates that the DCEU isn’t dead just yet. Prior to both of the screenings of “Aquaman” that I attended, the theater played a trailer for the DCEU’s next entry, “Shazam!” It looks to be following in the footsteps of “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” focusing on an origin story with little to no overt connections to the larger shared universe. Whereas once I would have been immediately skeptical of “Shazam!,” I now feel a cautious yet distinct sense of optimistic anticipation. After all, one success is a fluke, two is good luck, and three is a pattern.