Starring: Jason Momoa (Conan the Barbarian), Amber Heard (Magic Mike XXL), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), Patrick Wilson (Insidious), Dolph Lungdren (Creed II), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Baywatch), Nicole Kidman (The Hours)
Director: James Wan (Fast & Furious 7)
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2) and Will Beall (Gangster Squad)
Runtime: 2 hours 23 minutes
Release Date: 12 December (UK), 21 December (US)
It’s practically a running joke in pop culture that Aquaman is kind of a stupid idea for a superhero, and various attempts to modernise the character has done little to increase his popularity outside of the dedicated DC Comics fanbase. Jason Momoa has made a hearty effort to bring the character to life in the DCEU so far, but he’s yet to have the material to really let the character breath. Now finally with his own solo film, and completely free from the shackles of having to rigorously tie in with the other movies, Aquaman has free reign to be exactly the kind of movie it needs to be. The final result is a solid effort that represents what DC’s films should strive to be in the future, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for major improvements still.
Aquaman truly feels like the first DC film to fully step out of the shadow Zack Snyder has cast over the franchise so far, and the new direction feels evident right from the opening scenes. Instead of a brooding mess of muddled deconstructionism, Aquaman just wants to be a light-hearted swashbuckling adventure flick in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean or 1999’s The Mummy. From the ludicrously expansive mythology to the quip-heavy repartee between Momoa and Amber Heard, there’s no doubt this is a film that isn’t taking itself too seriously, and that makes it a pleasant if innutritious watch. However, it unfortunately also inherits many of the flaws of the high-budget B movies it takes inspiration from. Like many of the Pirates sequels, it has an incredibly simple “get the MacGuffin to save the world” plot but needlessly complicates it with layers upon layers of caveats, dragging out an already bloated runtime. The film’s breezy pacing picks up a lot of the slack, but there’s still a lot of fat here to trim like underdeveloped subplots and overlong flashbacks. But even with these bugs, that doesn’t stop Aquaman from being a fun ride that feels like the first DC movie in a long time to embrace the fantasy of its comic book roots. Instead of being ashamed of it and trying to cloak the camp in glumness, it unapologetically brings every crazy idea from the comics to the screen it can and says, “Yep! We know it looks silly, but we’re doing it anyway!”
Jason Momoa has struggled to really prove himself as a leading man in recent years, but in Aquaman he shows great untapped potential. Putting on an affable swagger reminiscent of Dwayne Johnson, Momoa’s Arthur Curry is a likable if uncomplicated protagonist and manages to balance the drama, action and comedy elements of the character. Arthur’s motivations feel a little fleeting, as his transition from reluctant hero to full-on “Aragorn of the Seven Seas” hits a few abrupt leaps, but Momoa’s performance never falters in being entertaining. Amber Heard mostly plays the straight woman in the double act as Mera, but she has solid chemistry with Momoa and she even gets a few cute Little Mermaid-esque fish-out-of-water moments to ease the tension herself. Patrick Wilson makes a decent villain as Arthur’s half-brother Orm, imbuing the character with just enough humanity to ground him despite the otherwise bombastic nature of his character. Willem Dafoe feels a little underutilised as Arthur’s mentor Vulko, whilst Dolph Lungdren continues to impress here as Mera’s father Nereus. Nicole Kidman seems to be enjoying letting loose as Queen Atlanna, giving the film a lot of creditability with her mere presence, as does another screen legend in a bizarre voice role I’d rather not spoil. However, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is the real breakout star here as the revenge-seeking Black Manta. Even though his story constantly feels like a side mission distraction with little relation to the main plot, he still shows plenty of promise for future instalments if given more room to grow.
Where Aquaman manages to make up for its story and character misgivings is all in the execution and delivery of what is otherwise one of the most visually imaginative films I’ve seen in a long time. James Wan has always had a unique eye for visual storytelling, and now unrestrained by budget he delivers his unbridled imagination at full force. Nothing on a direction and design level in Aquaman feels arbitrary or generic, and the final result is comparable to Avatar in terms of imagination and detail. The design of Atlantis and the underwater kingdoms is gorgeous, with the bioluminescent environments and lavishly gaudy costume designs giving it a real “Flash Gordon under the sea” vibe; seriously, this movie features dresses made out of jellyfish and henchman uniforms straight out of a series of Power Rangers, and yet it all somehow just works.
The action sequences are easily the highlights of the entire experience, and that’s mainly down to the gloriously over-the-top cinematography and the rapturously frenetic fight choreography. There are so many unique ideas thrown into every skirmish that it’s hard to pick a real standout, but it’s nigh impossible to find any of the set pieces here lacking in creativity. Rupert Greggson-Williams’ score for the picture is fantastically varied, switching from orchestral heroic themes to eletronica-infused action beats to quirky comedy tunes, and yet it somehow all still fits together. The only real downers at times are the visual effects. Whilst a lot of the effects are well executed that help bring this fantastical world to life effectively, there are other aspects that immediately rip you out of the illusion. From some iffy compositing to some of the worst digital de-aging effects since TRON: Legacy, sometimes Aquaman looks like it cost far less than the reported $160 million budget.
Aquaman is hardly the most innovative or thought-provoking superhero movie on the market, but it accomplishes its simple goals well enough. It avoids being sheepish about its more preposterous concepts, instead revelling in its comic book goofiness for a rollicking B movie adventure. Yes, DC have definitely taken a few notes from Marvel on this one, but it doesn’t feel like a cynical cashgrab either. This is the type of movie that absolutely was born from a director’s unique vision, and if nothing else I hope this opens more doors for James Wan to do more blockbusters; he’s more than proven he’s capable of commanding big budgets and delivering high octance spectacle. DC still has a few kinks in the armour to iron out if they want to make a full recovery, but they are far from out of the race now.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10