Aquaman proves Warner Bros’ best formula for getting its superhero films right is to simply embrace the fun of the source material. That means letting the brooding and bleak heroic portrayals shown in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice sleep with the fishes.
After Wonder Woman, that brighter, more optimistic and fun direction seemed obvious. Aquaman assures that’s the only way DC films need to go. Making sure director James Wan is a big part of it should also be a big key going forward. Wan swings for the fences in crafting arguably the most ambitious comic book film we’ve seen on the big screen yet.
Jason Momoa reprises his role as Arthur Curry, the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantis queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Thanks to his unique heritage, Arthur learns he can swim underwater and communicate with sea life.
He hasn’t had much use for learning more about his Atlantean roots as he blames them for the death of his mother. Arthur has now taken to patrolling the seas and keeping the peace. He’s not so sure about this nickname Aquaman, but doesn’t hate it.
But when Mera (Amber Heard) arrives from Atlantis with news of a pending war, Arthur realizes he can’t stand on the sidelines any longer. Making things more complicated, his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen), is the one rallying the Atlantis armies to war with the surface war. It’s probably not a coincidence that Wilson looks like the more traditional take on Aquaman.
Screenwriter Will Beall has a clear understanding of what makes Aquaman work. Taking cues from comic writer Geoff Johns’ take on Aquaman, they don’t apologize for the hero and instead focus on what makes him inherently cool. The underwater sonic booms, the armor, the exotic sea life and communicating with sea animals. Having an actor like Momoa, who exudes cool, doesn’t hurt either.
Momoa brought a fun attitude to Justice League and he makes for an engaging lead. He brings a swagger and coolness to Aquaman while also being comfortable enough to channel his more comedic side. In a lot of regards Momoa’s Aquaman is the DC cinematic equivalent to Marvel Studios’ Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
Mera is an important part of the Aquaman mythos. She’s not the usual superhero love interest and is more Aquaman’s partner fighting side by side with him in battle. Heard didn’t get much of an opportunity to make an impression in Justice League, but fully captures Mera’s spirit from the comics.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has a fun supporting role as Aquaman’s other arch-enemy Black Manta. The plot sets Black Manta up as a major antagonist without showing too much. Ocean Master is the main villain in this film and this is more of a tease of a full-length Aquaman/Black Manta conflict.
In a very cool touch, Michael Beach (If Beale Street Could Talk) plays Manta’s father. Beach voiced the Black Manta-like character Devil Ray in the Justice League Unlimited cartoon.
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Dolph Lundgren and Willem Dafoe have key supporting roles as well. We’re now venturing in the territory where actors are double dipping in their comic performances. Lundgren starred in the first Punisher film while Dafoe was the villain in the first Spider-Man film. Kidman was also the love interest in Batman Forever.
One of the fun surprises with the film is how easily it switches genres. Naturally, it carries the blueprint of the standard comic book film, but also has a quest like feel similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark. An escape from the Trench creatures really has a horror/zombie movie tone.
Interestingly, Aquaman plays out the most like a superhero take on Flash Gordon with Aquaman and Mera traveling to different exotic realms both above and below the surface.
Maybe Wan was the director Warner Bros. should have tabbed to spearhead its DC cinematic universe from the start? Like Zach Snyder, Wan has a keen eye for breathtaking and striking visuals. In one of the film’s most stunning sequences, Aquaman and Mera battle The Trench using flares to keep ahead of the demented creatures.
There’s several scenes throughout the movie that look like the superhero equivalent to Avatar. But one major advantage Wan has is not losing the story in all of the superhero visual spectacle.
Wan never seems overwhelmed by the prospect of having so much of Aquaman take place underwater. It’s a no-brainer for the character, but Wan doesn’t come up with cheats to continually keep the action on the surface. Wan fully embraces the challenge of bringing Atlantis to life and it pays off with some amazing scenes.
The big final battle doesn’t disappoint with a staggeringly epic encounter that pays off the setup. At 143 minutes, Aquaman isn’t short, yet it doesn’t feel like it would benefit from some editing. There’s a few cheesy moments largely around Arthur’s origin, but those are kept to a minimum. During the flashbacks, Morrison sports one of the worst hairpieces I’ve seen in years.
My biggest disappointment was the lack of connectivity to the rest of the DC films. There’s a subtle reference to the Justice League, but no outright mentions of his time with Wonder Woman, Batman and the others. It’s why the rushed efforts to throw Justice League turned off so many fans expecting a slow burn buildup like Marvel Studios did with The Avengers.
Aquaman does feature a post-credit scene. I was hoping it would be a followup to the tantalizing tease from the Justice League final post-credit scene. Instead, it sets up what should be the obvious direction for Aquaman 2.
Aquaman is a major step forward for the fledgling DC Cinematic Universe. Along with Wonder Woman, there’s a solid foundation to get this franchise on track even without Batman or Superman.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.