I don’t think any of us could have expected that we’d get an Aquaman movie before, say, The Flash or another of DC’s heavy-hitters that hasn’t labored under decades of “talks to fish” jokes. (Thank credited writer Geoff Johns, who spent years recently doing yeoman’s work to boost the profile of Aquaman comics after the character languished following Peter David’s seminal 1990s run.) But here we are, in the wake of a disappointingly passable Justice League and a DC cinematic universe that looks to be more standalone than unified – which is actually smart. Instead of chasing the Marvel method, DC appears to be organizing its universe around its unique and resonant characters, even if they (Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Aquaman) aren’t the ones you’d expect.
Enter, then, Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, rightful heir to the Atlantean throne currently held by his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants to unite the seven kingdoms of the sea in an offensive against the surface world. Drafted into the conflict by princess Mera (Amber Heard) and royal advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the man who would be Aquaman sets off on a quest to reclaim his birthright and his destiny.
As a piece of big-screen spectacle – placed at Christmastime, it feels a bit out of place, but so too does its land-and-sea protagonist – Aquaman is a real popcorn movie. Looking like an underwater Tron: Legacy, with a narrative that feels like a cross between Thor and Indiana Jones (and a Rupert Gregson-Williams score that’s part Vangelis, part Henry Jackman, and part Junkie XL), there is something contagious about Aquaman’s gee-whiz enthusiasm for bright lights, big setpieces, and wild monstrous creatures. From merpeople to colossal crabs, from talking krakens to zombie fishmen, director James Wan is clearly having a ball inventing and adapting the daftest denizens of the deep. Moreover, the film carries with it a sense that any mad adventure could be just around the corner – par for the course are a tidal wave or jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Don’t worry too much, the film seems to say; just have fun.
And for the most part, Aquaman is quite fun, thanks in large part to Momoa’s seafaring swagger. When we last saw him in Justice League, he was the surfer bro monarch, howling with glee and cackling “My man!” while spearing parademons. Here he’s lost none of that cockiness, overconfident and scrapping for a fight. His headstrong nature is countered by Amber Heard’s steady Mera, always cautious and deductive but a strong hand in a fight as she defies her father (Dolph Lundrgren, astride a seahorse) and his alliance with Orm.
Poor Heard, though, is saddled with scores of expositional dialogue, as are most of the characters in the film. Atlantis and its rival kingdoms are dense in mythology, and there’s a lot of ground/water to cover, but the film does pack in a lot, including Aquaman’s three biggest villains. On that count, despite the film threatening to buckle under its own weight, it is possibly the most straight-faced comics-accurate superhero film in recent memory, with Mera, Orm, and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) looking as if they’ve stepped directly off the printed page without any self-conscious jokes. In fact, it’s easy to overlook a lot of the film’s flaws – choppy exposition, cartoonish filters on the visuals and the audio – because of how earnestly it emulates its source material; when Orm puts on that Ocean Master helmet, it’s like looking into the eyes of an Ivan Reis page. Indeed, from Zack Snyder we sense that James Wan has inherited that widescreen approach to the cinematic frame as a comic book panel, slowing down key action beats to give us a fist-pumping rah-rah pose before revving back up.
There are moments in Aquaman that are difficult to engage, moments that take you out of the film because of how ludic and unserious it can be; for me, it was the moments when some of the dialogue, already leaden with exposition, was muffled by an underwater filter that sounds like a kid in a bathtub (Tom Hardy, eat your heart out). But the film is buoyed by its relentless exuberance and my own predisposition to like this sort of movie when it doesn’t step grotesquely out of line. Between a comics-accurate Black Manta and Nicole Kidman wearing a sequined amphibious skeleton, the geeks have well and truly won.