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Makes a Big Splash

Jason Momoa
Jason Momoa
Warner Brothers
 143 Minutes
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard   

There are two different movies doing battle in the latest DC Entertainment superhero film, Aquaman, which to a certain extent accounts for the movie’s somewhat bloated 143-minute running time. First, there is a ponderous, silly would-be epic about warring undersea kingdoms that doesn’t realize just how ponderous and how silly it is. Second, there is a goofball superhero romp about a big, fun-loving dude who knows just how ridiculous he looks as a superhero and does his best to avoid taking on the position. This dichotomy is perhaps to be expected considering that there are four different credited screenwriters on Aquaman, including director James Wan. Fortunately, the second version of the movie usually prevails, albeit narrowly at times, thanks in large part to the charismatic hunk presence of Jason Momoa in the title role.


Aquaman has the misfortune of hitting theaters a few months after the screen version of Marvel’s Black Panther, a film whose backstory is somewhat similar. Black Panther is mostly set in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, where two half-brothers eventually engage in ritualistic combat to decide who will rule. Similarly, Aquaman is mostly set in the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, where two half-brothers eventually engage in ritualistic combat to decide who will rule. The big difference between the two is that the kingdom of Wakanda is plausible, at least on a comic book level, if one accepts the original premise, and the motivations and actions of both brothers make sense. On the other hand, the version of Atlantis depicted in Aquaman seems more like a cross between the land of Westeros in Game of Thrones and Sponge Bob Square Pants’ hometown of Bikini Bottom.


However, while Aquaman suffers in comparison to Black Panther, it has the good fortune of hitting theaters a few months after the last overwrought DC superhero epic, Justice League, where the character of Aquaman put in an appearance and was the best part of the movie. As a result, Jason Momoa already had built up considerable goodwill among DC fans, and he and director Wan were wise to exploit Momoa’s charisma and interpretation of the character wherever possible.


Actually, Momoa doesn’t put in an appearance until nearly a half hour into Aquaman. First, viewers learn his origin story as Arthur Curry, the product of a romance between a lonely lighthouse keeper, David Curry (Temuera Morrison), and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis, whom David rescues from the ocean after she flees her home to escape an arranged marriage. After a short period of domestic bliss, Atlanna is captured by some Atlantean stormtroopers and taken back undersea. As the audience later learns in flashbacks, she doesn’t completely abandon her son. Instead, she dispatches her trusted adviser Vulko (Willem Dafoe) to teach Arthur life lessons and combat skills, including the use of his favorite weapon, the trident.


As an adult, Arthur is a somewhat reluctant superhero, helping out those in need on the high seas but usually trying to maintain a low profile. Between missions, he likes to belt down a few beers with his dad and the guys at the local watering hole. One of those missions involves the rescue of the crew of a Russian submarine that has been hijacked by a father and son team of pirates (Michael Beach and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). In the ensuing fight, the father is killed, and the son vows revenge on Arthur. Eventually, the son will get hold of some nifty, high-powered Atlantean weaponry and rename himself Black Manta.


While Arthur is keeping to himself on dry land, his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is consolidating power in Atlantis in preparation for a war against the surface people. Orm allies himself with the neighboring King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) and hopes to marry Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard). She doesn’t fancy this marriage any more than Atlanna fancied her similar marriage a generation earlier, so Mera comes to the surface to plead with Arthur to return to Atlantis and stop Orm. Eventually, Arthur agrees, but to have a chance to beat Orm, he has to find the long-lost trident of Atlan, the first king of Atlantis, which is hidden in a trench somewhere on the bottom of the ocean and guarded by a giant sea monster.


The entire mythology of Atlantis is far too detailed for what should be a superhero romp, and the story of Orm’s machinations goes on far too long. To make matters worse, most of the visuals in Atlantis are strikingly silly. According to Aquaman’s backstory, after Atlantis wound up underwater, most of the tribes either evolved or devolved. So, while Orm, Mera, and Nereus look human, there is also a tribe of fish people and a tribe of crab people in Atlantis and another lost tribe that somehow wound up in the middle of the Sahara Desert. And when the tribes go to war, they do so on seahorseback. The problem with the way the Atlanteans are depicted isn’t the inherent goofiness of the entire concept; it’s the fact that, for the most part, the script doesn’t give in to that goofiness and, instead, has most of the characters playing their parts very seriously. Fortunately, Jason Momoa is very much aware of just how silly the entire concept can be, and he plays his role with the lightest touch, even when the storyline itself is quite serious.


Whenever Jason Momoa is onscreen, Aquaman works. More importantly, it works in his various action scenes. His character has a limited array of superpowers; he has great strength and can handle a stray bullet or two, and he can communicate with fish. These somewhat limited abilities make his fight scenes against multiple bad guys reasonably well balanced. The best sequence in the movie is an extended fight on an island off the coast of Italy with Arthur and Mera doing battle with Black Manta and a bunch of Atlantean stormtroopers. It’s a thrilling, extended chase and combat scene on rooftops and inside buildings. In this sequence, Mera isn’t a typical damsel in distress. She has the ability to manipulate water and make it assume various shapes that she can wield to her advantage, giving her the upper hand in her fights.


There’s a lot to like in Aquaman, enough so for me to recommend it despite the Atlantis storyline that never comes together. When the film tries to be serious, it can be very effective. Abdul-Mateen makes an excellent villain with an understandable motive and, thanks to the help he gets from Orm (who needed a submarine to launch a fake attack against his kingdom to convince Nereus to go to war), is able to battle Arthur to a near draw. And, while Jason Momoa and Amber Heard don’t strike many romantic or other sparks together (their obligatory sniping at each other seems even more forced than usual for this type of movie), the relationship between Temeura Morrison and Nicole Kidman manages to be surprisingly touching.


Calling Aquaman the best DC movie this side of Wonder Woman is probably faint praise, but the film does manage to be decent popcorn entertainment. Warner Brothers has already greenlit a sequel, one that will presumably be rid of all the obligatory backstory that weighed down the film at times, so much so that it threatened to take on water. The movie isn’t great art, but it’s got a perfectly cast lead (who represents a big sea change from the wimpy Aquaman of the original comics) who’s just now coming into his own. Aquaman has a few barnacles on the hull, but it’s definitely ship shape.

In this featurette, director James Wan discusses the making of Aquaman.

Read other reviews of Aquaman: 

Aquaman (2018) on IMDb