Since his inception nearly 80 years ago, Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris’ marine marvel Aquaman has been trapped in a whirlpool of pop cultural parody and persecution. From being the butt of jokes on shows like The Big Bang Theory to being endlessly lampooned for his flamboyance and “useless” superpowers, it was darn near impossible to imagine an Aquaman film ever being brought to screen (outside of the world of Entourage), let alone one so epic in scale…so to speak. However, fact can indeed be stranger than fiction and not only do we arrive at a time when Aquaman has boarded cinema schedules but we arrive at a time when DC’s dampest hero is being called their savior.
Whatever your thoughts on the DC Extended Universe (it remains a divisive battle of opinion), the franchise has been dogged by bad reviews and behind the scene fracas but, like Patty Jenkins’ outstanding Wonder Woman before it, director James Wan’s Aquaman sees the studio wisely take a few steps back and allow this two-and-a-half-hour ambitious blockbuster to unleash a torrent of unchained imagination upon the audience. Aquaman looks both backwards and forwards, showing how Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) came to be, as years ago Atlantis’ Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) fell for human lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) but this forbidden love led to their baby Arthur being distanced, for his own good, from his underwater culture. But jump to modern day and the worlds below and above face disaster, as Arthur must reclaim his birth right to the throne of Atlantis, and challenge its current ruler – his half brother – King Orm (Patrick Wilson), whose plan to wage war on the surface threatens to throw both realms into chaos.
Almost Shakespearean in its good old-fashioned tale of claims to the throne and familial conflict, this film makes great use of this classic storytelling construct and takes it to even greater depths in an onscreen spectacle of the very highest order. Rarely has a live-action blockbuster project embraced the lore of its source material so closely and it results in a genre-shifting, beautiful and insane ride. Aquaman is a weird, wild and wonderful creation that harks back to the days of the movie epic and is part Star Wars, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, part Flash Gordon and still very much its own thing.
Wan and his awesome cast are clearly having the utmost fun and that is infectious, as the film boldly bear hugs its comic book mythology and any of the imperfections that may come with it. Some lines of dialogue can rightly be called cheesy and you’d definitely have a point in saying that there is a lot to take in but this John Carter/Avatar/Valerian-esque display of cinematic creativity is so enchanting, fresh and compelling that you cannot be anything else but immersed.
Some critics have labeled the film dumb fun and they are half right, Aquaman is most certainly a blast but it never drowns out its heart and soul and carries on its spine a welcome eco-message and a rather splendid dissection of the negatives and positives of its heroes mixed race lineage and how he owns it! Behind the tsunami of CGI-filled action-drenched set pieces, comes a soulful work of expertly staged silver screen entertainment, which must be seen in a cinema. And in IMAX especially, every eccentricity, every glorious and alive aspect of Don Burgess’ spellbinding cinematography and every splash and crash thunders to life!
As does a diverse score by Wonder Woman’s Rupert Gregson-Williams, which incorporates operatic high notes as well as strong synthy beats, and it all meshes seamlessly with the rolling waves of the screen and has some Blade Runner-like flourishes here and there. There is also an audible nod featured in Wan’s onscreen flexing of his well-established horror muscles, in one especially dark and intense scene, which is guest scored by his chilling composer cohort Joseph Bishara (Insidious). While Saw’s Charlie Clouser makes a musical cameo too working on Pitbull’s potentially divisive remastered take on Toto’s “Africa”.
Wan directs with an aplomb for all this visual and auditory largeness and wackiness (see the all out monster mayhem of the war-torn final quarter) but also knows when to pull back (the poignant moments dotted throughout or the more face-to-face approach taken in the final duel), and the film is delivered with knowing wit and an exciting combination of tones that mesh perfectly with this updated and yet classically inspired take on the character and his comics. Amidst all the visionary money shots and dazzling aesthetic trimmings, it would be easy for the fundamentals to get stranded at sea but the identity of this story, its unique feel and its characters are never washed away.
Momoa leads the film with cracking charisma and is up for any and everything onscreen, as the film further unfurls its unashamed comic book roots. He makes the utmost of showcasing his hero and in this film makes you take notice of the aquatic ace, who he saturates with a likable, funny, action-ready and somewhat inspiring lead performance. He is well paired too with Heard’s Mera, who has her own crisis of duty to cope with and Heard excels as the insightful badass who sees –more than most – the potential within Arthur.
On the antagonist side though, things are more than even, in a scenery-chewing turn by Wilson who, as King Orm/Ocean Master, delights in sinking his teeth into the war mongering villainy but also the undeniable truths of his character’s devious but understandable motivations. Speaking of which, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II steals many a scene as iconic villain Black Manta, who has a strong character backstory and is remarkably faithfully realized onscreen by the actor. Manta gets arguably the films best action scene in a superbly shot Italy-set sequence and Abdul-Mateen is likely to do great things going forward in this part.
Adding to these invested lead performances is a string of sterling support from an excellently action ready Nicole Kidman (that one-take opening sequence), a strong wise mentor figure in Willem Dafoe’s Vulko and some noticeably nice work by Dolph Lundgren and Temuera Morrison as the fathers of Mera and Arthur respectively (Morrison even gets some emotive moments to shine with Kidman).
From goldfish gobbling and octopus drumming to a practically perfect vocal cameo and weaponised wine, Aquaman is daringly berserk in the most brilliant way (and do stay for the credits). Sure, if you go in to scrutinize there are flaws within but there is something glorious about seeing something live and die by the Atlantean steel of its sword, and risk sinking to surf a high tide of wonderment, and they sure don’t sink!
An aquatic ace!