Review: Aquaman (2018)


Aquaman is cornball Hollywood magic with a serious dollop of charm. If you think that comic books are serious business that deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and seriousness, you may be disappointed by how goofy James Wan’s latest entry in the DC Extended Universe is. But if, like me, you believe superhero stories are naturally silly (if delightful), then you may find Aquaman an enthralling romp through a fantastical world. Like Andrew Stanton’s John Carter and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Aquaman is a marvellous work of worldbuilding that shows every dollar of its mammoth budget on screen. It’s not going to change anyone’s minds that superhero films are essentially children’s entertainment, but it does bring the requisite entertainment, with charismatic performances, exciting fight choreography, and some breathtaking imagery.

Although set after the events of Justice League, Aquaman works partially as a origin story for Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the son of a human lighthouse keeper (Temeura Morrison) and an Atlantean queen (Nicole Kidman). Arthur is the true heir to the throne of Atlantis, but he’s also an outcast and a half-breed. He lives on the surface and helps people out when they get into life-threatening situations on the high seas. In his introduction here, we watch as he rescues a submarine full of Russian sailors from the pirate, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

As Arthur goes about his life—part outcast, part reluctant hero—his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) rules Atlantis and prepares for a war against the surface world in response to the surface’s environmental destruction of the oceans. Like Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther, Orm has sound logic in his antagonism toward humanity, even if, like Killmonger, he’s ultimately revealed to be driven by more petty jealousy and familial rivalry. Orm’s betrothed, Meera (Amber Heard), wants to prevent the war, so she heads to the surface to convince Arthur to come to Atlantis, challenge his brother, and assume the throne of the underwater world. Of course, to successfully challenge Orm and win the hearts of the people of Atlantis, Arthur needs to find the Trident of Atlantis’s first king, and so the majority of the film becomes a quest narrative, with Arthur and Meera heading through various fantastical environments and solving puzzles in order to get this famed weapon.

The first words we hear in James Wan’s Aquaman belong to a quote from Jules Verne’s A Floating City: “Put two ships in the open sea, without wind or tide, and, at last, they will come together.” It’s an apt quote, one that indicates what type of film you’re getting in two distinct ways. In one way, it refers to the corny romanticism the film (and a Golden Age comic book in particular) is going for. Specifically, it refers to the star-crossed love between Arthur’s parents: Queen Atlanna and Thomas Curry. But it also links the film to the works of Jules Verne, most specifically Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, as Aquaman is less about psychological realism or weighty political themes (although it hints at some) and more about exploring a fantastical world in as thorough a manner as possible.

Like Verne’s most famous novel, Aquaman is structured around the various underwater environments it shows us throughout Arthur Curry’s journey through the Seven Seas. On-screen text lets us know which of the various underwater worlds we’ve entered, from the Kingdom of the Fishermen to the Kingdom of the Brine to the abyss-like Kingdom of the Trench and, of course, Atlantis itself. The story is not crafted so much around Arthur’s arc from reluctant hero to king, but instead, around these underwater environments, with expository dialogue and the film’s quest narrative forcing the characters to explore how each of these environments work. This approach does not satisfy the demands of a nuanced story arc, but it does satisfy at a deeper level of world-building and fantasy, so on those terms, Aquaman is a rousing success.

The underwater worlds of Aquaman may lack some of the tactileness of a Wakanda from Black Panther, but it’s far more fantastical and grander than anything you see in that film. Wan is not satisfied with highlighting pockets of the underwater world, instead showing massive vistas and underwater highways that hint at the scale of this world. In many ways, it’s a successor to films like Avatar that revel as much in the environment as the story itself—which also helps explain Aquaman’s enormous success overseas, where it has become the most successful DCEU film to date.

Of course, if the characters inhabiting these worlds were dull, the film would be a fascinating dud, nothing more. Luckily, Jason Momoa is more than capable as the lead. Not only is he perhaps the most impressive physical specimen among modern leading men (ask many men and women alike, and they’ll agree he’s something of an ideal man when it comes to looks), but he’s also funny, charming, and, most importantly, genuinely likable. Momoa plays Arthur as something of a ultimate dudebro, the kind of guy who may lack some smarts, but amply makes up for it with an affable nature and wide array of natural talents. Also (and this is key), Momoa doesn’t talk down to the material or wink at the camera. He fully embraces the absurdity of the film’s scenarios, which force him to talk to whales, fight sea Leviathans, and race through the ocean like a torpedo. He’s not Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok or Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s not making fun of the film in an effort to get on side of a cynical audience; he’s simply having fun.

It helps that the rest of the film is often as fun as Momoa’s performance. Wan, who proved himself something of a camera maestro in The Conjuring, applies the same formal rigour to the fight scenes, which are impressive in their choreography and heft. Wan often favours a circular tracking shot at a wide angle to capture the action, circling around the characters as they demolish environments and throw tridents at each other. I don’t want to belabour comparisons with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but considering that only the first two fights of Black Panther and perhaps the elevator fight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier count as genuinely good fight scenes, Aquaman proves once again that the DCEU has the monopoly on compelling action scenes.

The fights actually showcase the superpowers of the characters instead of simply making characters brawl with each other like they’re in a weak approximation of a John Wick film. Furthermore, Wan doesn’t cut too often, instead often using a digital camera to weave together various sectors of a single environment and show the characters using the physical environment to their advantage during a fight, much as Steven Spielberg does in the Indiana Jones films. In particular, a fight and chase in Sicily has Arthur fighting Black Manta and racing over rooftops, across piazzas, and through apartments in a mad dash scrabble to beat or escape his nemesis It’s another example of Wan’s ingenuity for using on-screen environments.

Aquaman is undeniably corny—it’s last line is about love literally saving the world. It’s undeniably silly—it features crab men and underwater gladiator fights and sharks with lasers attached to them. But in a filmmaking landscape where superhero filmmakers are often satisfied to have their characters line up and run at each other in substitution for action choreography and genuine sense of scale, Aquaman brings verve, visual storytelling, and genuine spectacle to a genre that thrives off superficial pleasures. It’s a little dumb, but the character of Aquaman, who can talk to sea creatures and rides giant sea lions, is a little dumb. James Wan leans into the absurdity of the character and has a lot of fun in the process. As a film, it may be too long and lack any kind of narrative or emotional complexity, but as pure fantasy spectacle, it’s pretty damn good.

7 out of 10

Aquaman (2018, United States)

Directed by James Wan; written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, based on a story by Geoff Johns, James Wan, and Will Beall, based on the DC Comics character created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris; starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Kidman.