Back in the 1990’s, I used to make a joke about Kevin Costner, how he seemed to only star in three hour movies in which he got to play some iconic childhood hero. Like he’s saying, “Hey, I’m Robin Hood!” (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) or “Hey, I’m a cowboy!” (Wyatt Earp), or “Hey, I’m an Indian!” (Dances with Wolves), or “Hey, I’m Aquaman!” (Waterworld).
Of course, Waterworld is not actually about Aquaman, but some other guy who can swim really fast and survive the depths of the ocean. Part of the joke is that the idea of making an actual Aquaman movie is just ludicrous. Oh, how times have changed.
Or have they? Because if there’s one word that could be used to describe Aquaman, it’s ludicrous.
And by that, I don’t mean “bad”, exactly. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. The film is directed by James Wan, and tells a rip-roaring, high-stakes adventure about Arthur Curry, the product of a forbidden love between the Atlantean queen Atlanna (really), played by Nicole Kidman, and the down-to-earth New Zealander lighthouse keeper living in Maine, Tom Curry, played by Temeura Morrison. Arthur himself is played by Jason Momoa, who appears in the role for the third time after a cameo in Batman v. Superman and a co-starring role in Justice League. If you’ve seen Justice League, you know everything you need to know about the guy—he’s a hard drinking, punch-up loving, meathead of a man who has the benefit of a chiseled physique and the occasional bout of self-aware introspection.
The plot here is that a crazy Atlantean prince named Orm (Patrick Wilson) is actively looking to create war between the peoples of the oceans (all remnants of seven kingdoms that existed before Atlantis sunk into the sea) and the surface world, and in so doing establish himself as the top-dog king over the whole earth. The various royalty and royal advisors who recognize this plan as madness seek out the one person who could possibly get everyone to not follow Orm, and that of course is his older half-brother, Arthur. Arthur is reluctant, but gradually realizes that he has a destiny as a hero and a king, a lot of which is built around him proving himself worthy to wield an ancient trident which once created by the Atlantis’ original king.
The whole story is a bizarre mishmash of moments that hearken back to Thor, Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Little Mermaid. Arthur is fun to watch but nearly utterly lacking in depth as a person. His main ally is Mera, an undersea princess who is betrothed to Orm but sees through his mad schemes. She has the power to control water, which is very cool but goes unexplained in the movie. Mera is played by Amber Heard who looks decent in the part but does not convey any sense of the semi-mythical nobility that you get with the rest of the Atlanteans (particularly Willem Dafoe and Dolph Lundgren, of all people)—she feels just like some woman you might meet at some Hollywood party.
(Actually, with the prominence of super-powered Mera as the movie’s co-star, Aquaman also reminds me of Ant-Man and the Wasp quite a bit. Particularly with the eventual fate of Atlanna, a supposedly dead woman who is played by a Hollywood A-lister and is found alive wearing a strange outfit in an inhospitable world where she was cut off from home and has survived after spending years entirely on her own…)
Anyway, before any of this can get you down, you’re distracted by the wall-to-wall shear insanity of just about everything that you see on screen. There’s physics-defying swimming (basically, people just flying through the water), armies of soldiers riding on sharks, kings riding on giant sea dragons, an island full of dinosaurs at the earth’s core, Nicole Kidman fighting assassins in water-filled space suits, an octopus playing the drums, killer humanoid monsters (like from movie Aliens) that live underwater, at least three “jump scare” explosions, a fancy dress that seems to be made in part out of living jellyfish, and a giant deep sea kaiju who is voiced by Julie freakin’ Andrews! The dizzying array of concepts are all conveyed by equally dizzying camerawork, which all combine to make it hard to settle down and actually pay attention to anything in particular. A little bit like being on a roller coaster—fun at the time but looking back it’s a bit of a blur.
Maybe my favorite bit in the movie is everything with Black Manta, who is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and quite well depicted. He’s Aquaman’s most famous comic book enemy, and even though he has a smaller part here, he is set up as the primary villain of the (presumed) sequel. He has a decently compelling origin and features in a fun chase sequence along the rooftops of Siciliy, which whets the appetite for more. A return appearance seems pretty likely considering the huge amount of money the movie is making.
I guess with that success, Warner Bros. gets a little closer to figuring out what its superhero audience actually wants. In this case, it’s not a deep movie, and not a particularly original one aside from the idea of taking place underwater. It is however, a fun ride, and avoids any hint of dourness, which unfortunately makes it better than most of the DC extended universe films thus far. Hopefully, if the producers can continue to refine their approach, we’ll look back at this movie someday in the same way we do now with Captain America: The First Avenger or Thor—good fun at the time, but in the long run not one of the franchise’s best efforts.