Aquaman, the latest entry into the DC Comics movie franchise, is one of the silliest movies in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. It emphatically is fun, assuming you can get with the movie’s overkill and over-the-top, Spongebob-esque sensibility.
Hawaiian-born über hunk Jason Momoa plays the title role here for either the second or third time, depending upon whether you count the nearly subliminal glimpse audiences got of him in Batman v. Superman – Dawn of Justice. The six foot five Momoa, who weighs in with Dwayne Johnson-like proportions, has already played both Conan the Barbarian and Game of Throne’s Khal Drogo, and is a key reason that this movie, which by no reasonable expectation should work at all, is actually pretty entertaining. For all of the beefcake factor, which is astronomical here, Momoa projects an irresistible sense of humor, but with the indispensable gift of knowing when he does have to take the proceedings seriously. That was part of what made Christopher Reeve so groundbreaking as Superman, and it’s going to make Momoa a star.
For the uninitiated, Momoa plays Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman, a superhero who breathes underwater, swims really fast and periodically talks to seafood. As portrayed here he’s also superhumanly strong. The comic book version is actually one of DC’s oldest vintage characters, dating back to World War II, and pretty much continuously in publication since. Despite various revisions over the years, the best-known version of the character is probably the cartoon incarnation on the TV series Superfriends which furnished decades worth of material for stand-up comics since.
This movie, directed by James Wan, who virtually reinvented the modern horror movie with Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring movies, is likely to upend that perception once and for all. Wan is deservedly known for the taut, economical pacing of his horror movies, along with a flair for action. Those gifts are not on full display here. At two hours and twenty-three minutes, Aquaman is easily half an hour too long. Also missing is the intensely practical look of his low- budget horror flicks. Much of Aquaman was made in computers by an international coalition of digital artists, compositors, programmers and inputters far larger than the production crew or cast.
The movie is gorgeous to look at though, with fantastic underwater cities and vistas all rendered in dazzling hues of blue, lavender, gold and green. The audience is expected to suspend its disbelief while characters talk clearly underwater with nary a trace of bubbles. Go with it. None of this is going to work otherwise. Some of the characters even wear flowing capes. When you think about it, could there be a more useless garment underwater? Wouldn’t a cape at twenty thousand leagues basically be a wet blanket? But there is a Spongebob sensibility to the whole thing, or at least The Little Mermaid, and even if you don’t start looking for underwater fireplaces, there are times you almost expect the characters to break into a chorus of “Under the Sea.”
Aquaman, the lovechild of an Atlantean princess (Nicole Kidman, making her first comic book based appearance since Batman Forever) and a lighthouse keeper (New Zealander Temuera Morrison, who played Abin Sur in the ill-fated Green Lantern adaptation), has grown up on land, ever since his mother was coerced back to Atlantis and sacrificed to testie deep sea monsters. Arthur’s only contact with Atlantis has been martial arts (think fish fu) training by Atlantean Vizier Vulko (Sam Raimi Spider-Man alum Willem Dafoe, joining the spare but swelling ranks of talent who have appeared in both the competing Marvel and DC camps). Perhaps understandably, he has little interest in the affairs of Atlantis, which is falling under the Trumpian sway of his blond brother Orm (engagingly played by The Conjuring’s Patrick Wilson). Enter Amber Heard, in an genuinely alarming red wig, as Atlantean Mera, who wants Arthur, who is older than Orm, to take his rightful place as king.
An international road trip follows, to find a talismanic trident. Some of the movie’s best action follows, as Arthur and Mera encounter an assassination team headed by the human Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Manta doesn’t have much to do with the plot, but Abdul-Mateen is a charismatic presence. There is no attempt to explain how the characters get from Africa to Sicily without transportation. Wan is openly influenced by other recent hits here – Momoa’s hand-to-hand scenes are reminiscent of the recent Captain America movies and a Sicilian rooftop chase with Amber Heard (and her stunt double) are straight out of Bourne and Bond. The martial arts choreography is appropriately dizzying.
At some point the viewer is likely to realize that Heard is basically playing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in a wet spandex competition, but Heard is in on the joke and understands the movie’s sensibility. Also floating around in the big-name cast is Dolph Lundgren, who decades ago played He-Man in Masters of the Universe in an age when this stuff was all less respectable. Once Marvel had landed Anthony Hopkins to play Odin in Thor, they openly boasted that no one was above Marvel, which conveniently ignored the fact that the 1978 Superman had featured two Academy Award winners (Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Oscar nominees Jackie Cooper, Trevor Howard, Valerie Perrine, Terence Stamp, Susannah York and Ned Beatty).
None of the ensuing plot developments are remotely surprising, and the movie generates very little in the way of suspense. However, it is sumptuously eye-filling and generally good natured. While it does not hit the peaks of last year’s stunning Wonder Woman, or Marvel’s hugely successful Black Panther, Aquaman is a likeably goofy epic in its own right. It’s all wet, but it’s all right.