What DC's Aquaman movie lacks in refinement, it makes up for with action spectacle and a whole lot of fun personality from Momoa's Arthur Curry.
Warner Bros. and DC Films launched a shared universe of interconnected DC Comics-based movies with Zack Snyder's Man of Steel in 2013, then vastly expanded the world three years later with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. However, though Batman V Superman and fellow 2016 release Suicide Squad were financially successful, neither were received well by critics. Then, 2017's Wonder Woman provided the film series with its first unequivocal hit, receiving largely positive reviews and having a successful run at the box office. But it was followed by Justice League, a movie that underperformed with critics and fans, scoring the franchise's lowest box office take. Now more than a year after Justice League hit theaters, Warner Bros. and DC Films returns with Aquaman. The movie sees the return of Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry in an origin story that's largely disconnected from the rest of the franchise thus far. What DC's Aquaman movie lacks in refinement, it makes up for with action spectacle and a whole lot of fun personality from Momoa's Arthur Curry.
Aquaman picks up shortly after the events of Justice League, with Arthur a reluctant hero who uses his abilities as half-human, half-Atlantean to save those in need of help. In flashback and voiceover, Arthur reveals he's the son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), who fell in love despite the differences between their worlds. However, Atlanna returned to Atlantis when Arthur was young in order to protect her family, and she was executed by the king after bearing him a son, Arthur's half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson). In the present day, Arthur saves a submarine full of humans from pirates lead by David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but when one of the pirates becomes trapped and Arthur has the chance to save him, he refuses - making an enemy of David.
Once Arthur returns home, he's confronted by Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who pleads with him to venture to Atlantis and take his rightful place as its king, preventing Orm from waging war on the surface. Mera and royal vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) have found a clue that will lead Arthur to the lost trident of King Atlan, and if Arthur retrieves the weapon, he will wield the power of the seas and be able to take the throne from Orm. Arthur, however, is not enthused by the plan since he wants nothing to do with the kingdom that executed his mother. Meanwhile, Orm is trying to unite the remaining underwater kingdoms with the help of Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), in order to start a war with the surface dwellers. With so many enemies working against him, it's unclear if Arthur will be able to find Atlan's trident in time - and whether he'll be worthy to wield it - in order to prevent a war.
Aquaman was directed by James Wan (The Conjuring, Furious 7) from a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2 and 3) and Will Beall (Gangster Squad) from a story by Wan, Beall and DC's Geoff Johns. The script for Aquaman struggles a bit with balancing the at times silly nature of comic book superheroes come to life with the film's grounded take on Arthur Curry. There are lines of clunky dialogue that may have worked better on the page than in action, but there is also an earnestness to the emotion imbued in the script that helps to justify the more ridiculously overdramatic lines. Further, the movie is overstuffed with plot, constantly jumping between multiple storylines. The convoluted plot can be a little hard to follow at times, but it moves quickly forward with enough action and adventure to keep a steady pace. And, to Wan's credit, his directing provides a great deal of dynamic action, crafting visual spectacle so rarely seen in live-action films.
To be sure, there's plenty to enjoy in Aquaman, and much of that is derived from the movie's personality. Like the charm of Momoa's Arthur, Aquaman is unapologetically over-the-top and silly. This personality is no better demonstrated than in one particular musical cue in the movie, which features a song written specifically for Aquaman and performed by Pitbull that includes a sample of Toto's "Africa". It's a strange mix of elements so wild it either works for the viewer or it doesn't - just like Aquaman. The movie is an amalgam of different kinds of stories: it's an adaptation of the legend of King Arthur, set within an underwater world; it's a high-fantasy tale of war between kingdoms; it's a classic comic book story of the hero creating his own enemy; it's a story about a biracial person coming to terms with both sides of themselves. Aquaman is all of these different stories and the one thread connecting them all is Arthur and his personality, which works surprisingly well to keep viewers engaged and along for the ride.
But, of course, that also means the success of Aquaman rests on the shoulders of Momoa. After a brief cameo in Batman V Superman and a much more substantial role in Justice League, DC fans are well acquainted with Arthur's personality and how perfectly Momoa portrays it. In his solo movie, Momoa continues to play up the fun sides of the character, but he's also given much more depth to work with as Aquaman explores the vulnerability Arthur feels when it comes to whether he's worthy of bridging two worlds. Momoa's portrayal of the superhero is further bolstered by his supporting cast, particularly Heard as Mera - though their dynamic is eye-rollingly cliché in its romantic development - and Wilson as Orm, who works as a fantastic foil to Arthur. Abdul-Mateen is a little out of place as David Kane, largely suffering from an underdeveloped role and overdramatic lines. But the real strong point of the supporting cast is Kidman as Atlanna, who helps to ground the emotional throughline of the movie, and further elevate Momoa's performance.
Still, another star of Aquaman are the visual elements. Wan set out to craft an underwater epic and he delivers on that vision. There are certain instances where the CGI doesn't quite work - uncanny valley sets in when the movie depicts crowds of Atlantean people and sometimes with the main characters underwater. That said, the non-human underwater creatures and worlds are beautifully, realistically rendered in a way that feels incredibly immersive. And Wan uses these CGI elements to great effect at certain key moments to deliver striking visuals. As a result, Aquaman is a movie that will absolutely benefit from being seen IMAX, helping to further immerse viewers in the world Wan has created.
Ultimately, Aquaman is a superhero origin story that separates itself from the rest of the Worlds of DC movies as much as possible - but not in a way that disparages the work of the directors who came before Wan. Instead, Aquaman stands on its own feet in a way that reflects Arthur's own journey of coming into his own as a superhero, separate from the other heroes of the land. Further, while the unique personality of Momoa's Arthur and Wan's directing may not win over every viewer, Aquaman is a wild adventure through stunning undersea worlds that's sure to delight fans of this character and his DC Comics legacy. It may not be the movie that completely turns the tide in the public perception of this DC franchise, but Aquaman is a solid standalone effort with plenty of potential for even greater success in a sequel.
Aquaman is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 143 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.
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- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
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