Aquaman is creative, colorful, and a raucous good time. It’s also a damn mess.
This sixth installment in the DC Universe comes closest to nailing that particular brand of self-aware humor and save-the-world earnestness that has been working so well over at Marvel. There’s even been talk of it being the DC-equivalent of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi's wacky, genre-bending installment, to which I can only respond: no. Thor: Ragnarok is a sharply-written comedy that, while playing with superhero conventions, is also a genuinely great movie. Aquaman, however, lingers in so-bad-it’s-good territory.
The setup is your typical superhero origin backstory, this time revealing Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) is our titular hero’s mother. She Little Mermaids onto the coast of Maine in 1985, marries her rescuer (a lighthouse keeper played by Temuerra Morrison), and they have a son, whom they name Arthur— yes, after the king of Arthurian legend. But that idyllic life comes to an abrupt end as the groom Atlanna left behind in Atlantis sends an army to retrieve her, and the delicate human/sea-people coexistence Atlanna and her lighthouse husband created is ruined.
Fast-forward to the present, and Arthur has become Aquaman (Jason Momoa), he of the glistening muscles and shaggy beard, who communicates with sea creatures via the ocean-speak equivalent of Harry Potter’s Parseltongue. He’s pretty content being the best swimmer in his little corner of the world. Large bikers ask him for selfies!
But down in the depths, things are changing. The new king, Orm of Atlantis (Patrick Wilson), Aquaman’s half-brother (same mom, different dad), is getting restless, convinced that a conflict with the “land-dwellers” is inevitable. So, when Princess Mera (Amber Heard) suddenly shows up in his hometown to warn of the threat, Arthur has to decide: Is he ready to be the man — and ruler — his mother once told him he could be?
Having one long-winded plot is pedestrian, though, so Aquaman gives us another, which accounts for the film’s inexcusably long run-time. (There is no reason for this movie to be two hours and 23 minutes. None.) Orm isn’t the only foe Arthur has to contend with; there’s also Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate in league with Orm who wants revenge for his father’s death during a raid thwarted by Aquaman.
Momoa is a delight, mostly because he leans into the absurdity of his appearance. He knows he’s ripped and superhuman, so why pretend otherwise? But none of that really qualifies as acting. Any scene requiring true introspection or vulnerability is undercut by the nagging feeling that this man has never experienced self-doubt.
His relationship with Mera is fun and quippy, although the driving emotion for their romance is never developed beyond “these two want to bone.” And while Heard is more than a match for Momoa, I wish Aquaman didn’t so want to peg her as a love interest. Mera goes from being Orm’s fiance to Arthur’s sidekick/sidepiece, which feels like a dated concept in a year where women have dominated the screen in such fierce and innovative ways. Instead of yet another movie about a man who needs to lean on the women around him to reach his full potential, imagine the glorious possibilities that lie in a Wonder Woman/Princess Mera Justice League-style crossover.
The supporting castmembers, who include an eerily smooth-skinned Willem Dafoe as Aquaman’s trainer-sensei Vulko, and Julie Andrews, who voices a hydra-like sea monster, aren’t not given all that much to do. Aquaman confused many when it cast 51-year-old Kidman as 39-year-old Momoa’s mother, but turns out that most of the casting follows in that vein. Forty-five-year-old Wilson, born in 1973, plays a character who, according to the story’s timeline, can be no older than 33. Maybe people age differently in Atlantis?
The movies’ best and most beautiful scenes take place underwater. Wan makes great use of light and shadows, conveying a vibrant world of neon colors that exist only below the surface. Much like Wakanda, Black Panther’s hidden nation, Atlantis has prospered separately from the world at large, resulting in a technologically advanced metropolis complete with skyscrapers made out of shimmery bubbles, scaly fish submarines and underwater highways. (Although it’s hard not to make the comparison to Gungan City from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and no one wants that.) The final battle towards the end of the film is a visual stunner, complete with bursts of green, pink, yellow, and blues as Orm and Arthur duke it out for the crown.
The real problem is the writing. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s screenplay is weak, and the clumsy editing does nothing to help out. The dialogue is cringe-worthy, while every powerful glance or determined look is timed to a roaring soundtrack that makes them look spoofed. And though there are valuable kernels of story there — one thread deals with the Atlantians’ environmental concerns, for example — most of the plot hinges around a King Arthur myth that’s about as subtle as Guy Ritchie: only Arthur can retrieve the lost Trident that would make him master of the seas.
So, what to make of this clunky behemoth? It’s certainly fun to watch, and I spent most of it giggling with glee and/or dismay at how crazy it all was. But it also feels like wasted potential.