Nailing home once and for all that the worst thing to cinematically happen to the DC universe was Zach Snyder's vision, "Aquaman" may be a film that proves to be about as divisive among certain audiences of moviegoers as "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," though to the chagrin of those enamored by the farcically bleak "Snyder-verse" tone and aesthetic and much to my unabashed glee, that divisiveness will come from the opposite direction and gauge whether our post-irony worshiping society can embrace a wholly sincere fantasy adventure skating by purely on reveling in the charm of tropes played straight by the deft hand of a master director.
Fortunately, James Wan is up to the task, translating the titular superhero, played by Jason Momoa, and his antics of “Game of Thrones-esque” fantasy politics and mythical Arthurian legend as evoked by his civilian name into a grand and stuffed narrative of family, betrayal, honor, destiny, and just about everything that will make 80s fantasy fans jump for joy as the product becomes not dissimilar to fantasy faire the likes of “Krull,” the 1980s “Flash Gordon,” or the Jim Henson fantasy productions such as “Labyrinth” or “The Dark Crystal,” the primary difference being a production held together by a man of talent to match his imagination and a budget that does that imagination service.
In fact, the biggest problem with the movie may be that while just about all of its individual components work shockingly well and effectively, the film’s crew may have ultimately bitten off more than they can chew.
“Aquaman” clocks in at nearly two and a half hours and while the first half of it is briskly paced, its tone swapping from fantasy epic to swashbuckling globetrotting adventure and back again, along with the numerous bits of worldbuilding and plot threads that get picked up along the way begin to make the runtime wear on you by the time the climax begins to wrap up. An unwieldy piling of so many elements into one feature is usually a film’s death knell and “Aquaman” becomes noticeably cluttered and clunky as the weight of its undertaking becomes more apparent. Fortunately, the feature it’s all a part of refuses to sink.
The sheer levels of visual imagination on display in the world building of Atlantis go beyond simply being quality effects. From the armoring of the soldiers designed to contain their bodies in water, to the dress code of the aristocracy, to the different species of Atlanteans, you truly get a sense of scope as to how broad and rich the fictional culture is in ways not dissimilar to the opening 10 minutes of “Man of Steel” in the dying days of Krypton.
“Aquaman’s” visual design is inventive and bombastic yet subtle and never overbearing, always existing in a stylistic service to the character’s and the adventure that they are all a part of. It’s a style that can go back and forth between the subtleties of political machinations as discussed by Aquaman/Arthur Curry’s villainous brother Orm and Atlantean Tribal King Nereus (Patrick Wilson and Dolph Lundgren, respectively) and subdued moments of tension such as Arthur and Orm meeting for the first time with conflicting feelings over being brothers most likely destined to kill one another, right back to the glorious bombast of brilliantly choreographed action sequences so in tune with the stylized comic book superhero nature of the source material that there’s a moment in which Aquaman, upon defeating a foe kneels in pose as they fall over in a manner straight out of an episode of “Power Rangers” or “Kamen Rider.”
This movie’s greatest asset is the conviction with which they are willing to commit to the onscreen silliness, from the oversized whinnying seahorse mounts of the soldiers to the Atlantean gladiatorial death combat featuring war drums being beaten by an octopus using all 8 tentacles in its set up as it stares the audience in the eye and practically dares them to be the one to say something disparaging about the insanity being depicted on screen.
Each of the cast brings that conviction to each of their performances and adds just a pinch of nuance beyond the admittedly flat script that they’re working with. Orm and Vulko (Willem Dafoe) particularly add dimension to the Atlantis/surface world conflict tinged with a hint of sociopolitical commentary on the state of environmentalism with a hint of irony towards each side’s perception of the other.
Their views on Arthur, contextualized by a clear love that they had for his mother, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) add a bit of humanity to the conflict that offers shades of Shakespeare in the tale that unfolds and while the romance between the movie’s titular hero and Atlantean princess Mera comes together a bit clumsily, Amber Heard’s charisma and chemistry with Momoa helps her hold her own, while Momoa himself finally manages a solid take on the character as a bumbler with hidden depths who isn’t so much stupid as he is disillusioned.
From heart behind the meeting of Aquaman’s parents, to the origin of burgeoning villain Black Manta, there are almost too many great character beats to mention and they all hold their own in a production that knows how to let the emotion take center stage when it can handle the spotlight and leave the spectacle to bolster it until the messy story can pull itself back together.
“Aquaman” doesn’t quite attain “Wonder Woman’s” levels of wow in how admirable it’s willing to let the emotion and execution of its straight-laced story speak for itself but the freshness of its vision, boldness of its direction, and passions evident in every frame almost brought me to tears remembering a time when good superhero movies were stories that people believed in rather than brand perpetuating products.
I left it feeling like a child again and hope it puts the word out that just because Marvel was successful in 1 approach to the genre doesn’t mean it can’t be done in more unique capacities.
4 out of 5 stars
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.