Synopsis – Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.
My Take – There is no denying of the fact that comic book behemoth DC has an enormous roster of heroes and heroines, all ranging from different spectrums of science fiction, fantasy and myths. But for decades, one hero who has ended up getting treated like a pop culture punchline, thanks almost entirely to the Super Friends run on TV from 1973 to 1986, its Aquaman. Since Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger first dreamed him up in 1941, the superhero’s fate has largely been as the butt of jokes of DC Comics, for his not-so-potent powers. Sure, he can hold his own in fight with Superman and brandishes a big fork for weapon, but he can also talk to fish and sometimes also rides a sea horse.
Hence it came as quite a shock when ‘Game of Thrones’ star Jason Momoa, known for his long-haired heavy metal looks and much-tattooed hulking figure, got cast by director Zack Synder, to appear as the Aquatic Ace in his Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. It almost seemed like a dare: Try telling this guy your fish-man jokes! Unfortunately, four years have passed (since his casting) and things are not quite the same. It’s safe to say that DCEU has had trouble establishing itself in the films with the same success as its chief competitor Marvel.
While DC certainly has a dedicated fan base, their productions, with the notable exception of Wonder Woman, have failed to win over critics and make a lasting impact on a crowded pop culture landscape. In fact, their big superhero team-up Justice League turned out to be their biggest dud. And despite WB and DC‘s turn to choose The Conjuring and Furious 7 director James Wan to guide their sinking ship for a solo turn for Mamoa‘s Atlantis hero, to continue his standout turn in the team-up film, things seemed quite murky.
While there is no doubt that the film is overstuffed and often entirely nonsensical, it does bring back something which DC films have been missing for some time – entertainment. Yes, this weird and wonderful superhero adventure is a blast, both literally and figuratively. The film has director Wan embracing the inherent goofiness of its concept from start to finish, which in and of itself is a kind of remarkable feat, and with strong performances, captivating action set pieces, and a ballsy background soundtrack, this DC film almost succeeds in becoming the most epic superhero film ever made. And that’s saying something considering Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War also released this year. If for nothing, the film is worth a trip just for its wonderful carnival of visual effects display.
The story follows Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), who due to his savior acts and stint with the Justice League has become a mythical figure known as Aquaman. Born out of a forbidden wedlock between Tom (Temura Morrison), a human lighthouse keeper and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), an Atlantean-queen from below the seas, Arthur sees the world quite differently from most. While he possesses all the abilities of an Atlantian, but as a grown man he refuses to be a part of the ancient underwater world his mother was from, mainly as she was executed for her betrayal to the throne by giving birth to him, thereby forfeiting his right to the throne. Meanwhile below the surface of the ocean, Arthur’s half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to wage war with the surface world. In order to do so he needs the support of all the seven kingdoms and become the Ocean Master.
With King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), another aquatic monarch, at his side, and by recruiting the pirate David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) aka Black Manta, who has his own beef with Arthur, he puts his plans in motion. Fearing Orm’s destructive plans, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) travels to the surface to convince Arthur to take his rightful place and to challenge the throne, something he’s quite reluctant to do, but nevertheless agrees when Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who trained Arthur as a child and currently serves under Orm, inform the hero about the existence of the long lost trident of King Atlan, the first King of Atlantis, which contains immense power and can be used to overthrow Orm and prevent a war between worlds, all the while having a potentially good time.
This quest-by-numbers plot gives director Wan an opportunity to keep changing locations, justifying the bloated budget and running time that is more or less a must for today’s superhero films: massive undersea palaces and arenas; even bigger ruins; an abandoned Atlantean splinter kingdom lost in the sands of the Sahara; the author Jules Verne inspired hollow interior of the Earth, where dinosaurs still roam and an epic side monster voiced by Julie Andrews resides; the open sea, where a nighttime attack by the Trench people gives director Wan a chance to show off his debonair skill as a horror director on a swarming, CGI-panorama scale.
But like Wonder Woman, this adventure marks a move in the right direction for the DC Extended Universe, as above all this, his direction is quicker and lighter on its feet than infamously dour super hero films the studio has become known for. Thank goodness, there is no such Snyder sanctimony here, as viewers get lashings of bright color throughout.
This is the superhero origin story re-imagined as a psychedelic fairy tale, an excuse to take science-fiction thriller, The Abyss, an Indiana Jones-type hunt for buried treasure and giant scoops of Lord of the Rings-style mythology and stuff everything into a blender. And that kind of works in the film’s favor because there’s always some form of insane nonsense on the screen to keep you bewildered and entertained so you don’t really have the time or energy to focus on its more underwhelming aspects.
Love angle also abounds in superhero films, and this film is no exception. But director Wan’s depiction of it is far different from what we have been watching, as Mera, an Atlantean warrior, is not someone who would sit quietly while Aquaman beats their enemies down. She is nearly in every single frame fighting shoulder to shoulder with him. And while the story revolves around Arthur Curry, the heart of the film belongs to the love story between his parents, who make every scene touching and believable.
That insanity also helps the VFX work because realism isn’t an option. Visually, the film is rather spectacular to watch, especially when it comes to the realization of the city of Atlantis. This is the probably first of these attempted superhero films that actually feels like an epic which introduces a mythology, has gorgeous sea monsters and culminates into a satisfying finale. Here, multiple scenes stand out, one such is when a young Arthur Curry subsides the anger of a monstrous shark which almost attacked his classmate for bullying their would-be king. The particular sequence in the film gives sufficient hint to the audience as to what the rest of the film is capable of offering.
The costuming also works extremely well to keep the characters looking like they stepped out of the pages of a comic book whilst also adding an extra level of detail to deepen the sense that everything is underwater. Then you have the completely opposite environment in the desert. Renowned cinematographer Don Burgess (Spider-Man) varies the color palette with great success. And there are some very well-choreographed fight sequences which look all the more awesome in the various watery settings.
The opening fight between Atlanna and Atlantean soldiers in Tom’s lighthouse sets the town of the film. As the camera swings around in a 360-degree arc before flying up to the ceiling to look down. The effect is astonishing, but best of all, the viewer can actually see the action, instead of the usual Synder blur. There are also moments when the action is just so wildly absurd that you can’t help but just stare at the screen in awe of director Wan’s audacity, such as one battle between Aquaman and the villainous Black Manta, whose astonishing accurate look from the comics is one of the film’s biggest successes. Like much of the film, it also concludes with a crazed, overstuffed finale but it feels completely in line with everything that came before. It doesn’t feel as grating as so many bombastic blockbuster finales because it retains the tone struck throughout.
The only thorn in this epic appears in the form of its very generic plot, as the outcome is explained and assured from the first act. There are also some sizeable plot holes that get brushed over without the bat of an eyelid and parts of the narrative that never get fully developed or even go anywhere, but in all honesty, it’s quite easy to look past this and enjoy the film for what it is: it’s cheesy blockbuster fluff that looks visually spectacular with a simple narrative that gets the job done.
And much of the credit for the film’s success goes to the casting. No doubt Jason Momoa fits the role splendidly. He’s an actor who, like his director, embraces the lunacy of the film. He’s a towering, muscle-bound lead that has just enough sense of what kind of film he’s in. Amber Heard also paints a gripping portrayal of Mera on screen and is without a doubt the backbone of the film. Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman are two pretty big names who have sizeable roles and seem to have a fair amount of fun with their characters. Wan‘s favorite Patrick Wilson also hams it up rightfully so as the villain, hereby making another case of how underrated he is.
Dolph Lundgren seems to be having a great year away from his regular B action flicks, with yet another excellent dramatic turn following Creed II. Temuera Morrison and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II provide ample support. Julie Andrews leaves a lasting impression, unfortunately Djimon Hounsou and Randall Park are wasted in small roles. On the whole, ‘Aquaman’ is a bizarrely and brazenly entertaining underwater colorful, action-packed spectacle which despite its cheese factor offers a visual delight like never-seen-before.
Directed – James Wan
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 143 minutes