The DC cinematic universe has, so far, been mostly a wet fart. Man of Steel’s revisionist take on Superman kicked things off with a resounding “meh,” and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and last year’s Justice League were differing variations of terrible—the former being a fascinating abomination that betrayed the spirit of the characters while the latter was just merely a boring, inert stitching together of two diametrically-opposed creative visions.1 Only Wonder Woman escaped mostly-unscathed by Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot’s sheer force of will, even if it occasionally suffered from being tied to the aesthetic and tone of the DC Universe in general. James Wan’s Aquaman tosses all of this self-serious plodding aside, instead creating a vibrant universe where silliness, fun, and outside-the-box action reigns supreme.
Continuing his half-hearted refusal-of-the-call to be more than just a mere neighborhood friendly Aquaman, the film pits Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, oft-shirtless and bro-tastic as ever) against his half-brother and the kingdoms of Atlantis. Curry is the lovechild of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, one of the many great actors giving this film their all) and a lighthouse keeper in Maine, making him the first-born heir to the throne of Atlantis, a title he has zero interest in. Atlanna’s second child, Orm (a delightfully anal-retentive Patrick Wilson), seeks to destroy the surface world because of their destruction of the seas and thirsts for the power that would be granted to him as The Ocean Master if he can unite the Seven Kingdoms of the Seas. Curry is finally convinced to fight to unite both worlds and stand up to Orm by Princess Mera (Amber Heard, who gets some of the film’s best action beats) and Vulko (Willem Dafoe, once again following up a Best Supporting Actor nomination with a fun turn in a superhero movie). Arthur eventually fails, slowly begins believing in himself, takes up his rightful mantle, yadda yadda yadda. Mostly pretty standard superhero origin story stuff.
What’s not ordinary is, well, everything else. Aesthetically, this is one of the most mind-blowingly bonkers films of 2018. There’s the kingdom of Atlantis itself, guarded by shark-riding Atlanteans and giant “hydro-cannons” that shoot intruders who attempt to swim over their walls. Dolph Lundgren (killing it again in his second big-time role of 2018) shows up wielding a trident that shoots laser-beams and rides what appears to be a seahorse-barracuda hybrid decked out in gold-plated armor. If you were wondering if there would be a film this year where a man-bun wearing Patrick Wilson fights a crab army while surfing on a mosasaurus, then I’ve got some great news for you. Aquaman is the kind of film where a Pitbull song that samples Toto’s “Africa” gets needle-dropped and it’s straight up amazing. And this is before mentioning the film’s secondary (for now) villain: a comics-accurate Black Manta (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate who wears a giant oblong helmet that fires laser beams. This is the most enjoyably goofy blockbuster to have come out in a long time.
Aquaman also is not tied to the dark, desaturated color palette nor the stark visual gloom of its predecessors in the DC Universe. The underwater scenes —which look spectacular even through all those layers of CGI and other effects —are filled with awe-inspiring sea creatures and vivid neon colors. Wan’s Atlantis is marvelously crafted and sumptuous to spend time in, making it almost a shame that Aquaman is a globetrotting adventure that takes us around the world. From the Sahara to Sicily, Curry and Mera’s quest takes us to bright, exotic locales that gives the film a full, varied breadth to its canvas. A few years back Warner Brothers and their DC-film branch described themselves as a “director driven studio,” contrasting with Marvel Studios’ more producer driven approach at the time. Aquaman lives up to that, feeling like a film that Wan was able to make without a frame being sullied by studio interference.
What typically sinks2 a film like this is the cast, because actors might feel above the material and phone in performances. Not here: everyone from Momoa to Heard to Wilson to Julie Andrews voicing a talking kaiju-squid is pitch perfect. Wilson in particular delivers every silly line of dialogue with complete deathly seriousness. Lines like “Call me OCEANMASTER” are legitimately preposterous, but Wilson takes the role head-on and it’s just straight-up crushes it. Momoa’s default dudebro, beach-bum persona and performance clash delightfully with the uptight, wooden Atlanteans. There’s legitimate clever acting work being done, even if the attention inevitably will focus on the Lord of the Rings-style epic battle scenes where crab people duke it out with great white sharks.
Aquaman isn’t some dumb-fun, ironically-enjoyable movie where you’re laughing at it. It’s inventive, fun, moves at a delightfully brisk clip3 and works on basically every level. If anything, the one complaint I’d have about Aquaman is that it touches on environmental themes, but merely pays lip service to them without exploring them in depth—though that’s a complaint that could be levied at basically every blockbuster that emphasizes action spectacle over thematic heft. There’s so much uniquely cool stuff4 to completely dismiss the film even if it might not be “your cup of tea.” But if you can get on Aquaman’s wavelength, you’re going to have an absolute blast.
- I haven’t even bothered with Suicide Squad because I can’t think of anything I’d want to watch less than a film directed by David Ayer and starring Jared Leto as a Juggalo-ass looking Joker.
- I apologize.
- it’s far and away the breeziest superhero film of 2018.
- Wan even gets to tap into his horror roots during a few sequences, particularly in the film’s second act