Aquaman has been the butt of jokes for so long I’m not even sure we remember how it started. My earliest introduction to the character was with the Superfriends cartoon in which he was the plainest blond-haired dude in a room with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. Even Apache Chief was cooler. I remember when AOL first started I would go into the Aquaman chat room and harass the comic book’s editor, Kevin Dooley, about how lame the character was and he wasn’t very good at defending him. Dave Chappelle’s bit about why he thought Aquaman sucked (“What the Hell would you wanna say to a fish?”) has always been in my mind.
All of this to say that Aquaman is way tougher to make cool than Superman, but Warner Bros. took right first step by casting Jason Momoa as the character for a brief cameo in Batman v. Superman. His take on the character looked badass; a combination of Maori and Hawaiian tribal warrior with a surfer’s edge, Momoa brought his physicality and attitude to the role and instantly made him his own. While he was hamstrung by an uncertain direction in Justice League, Momoa’s infectious enthusiasm for the character is a big reason why Aquaman will be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this holiday season.
Under the guidance of director James Wan, Aquaman both embraces everything we know about the character and reinvents it. The powers we used to make fun, like being able to see in the ocean’s murky depths and an ability to “speak” with aquatic animals, are all a big part of who he is. But Wan, who practically reinvented the way we look at horror movies (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious) early in his career before moving on to direct Furious 7, isn’t afraid to tackle them head-on. The first time a shark comes crashing to the defense of a bullied school-aged Arthur Curry, joined moments later by dozens of imposing creatures, you see that this Aquaman isn’t going to spend his time chatting with goldfish.
Wan’s mandate from the start was that his Aquaman movie would be fun, a sharp departure from the gloomy-as-fuck Zack Snyder era. And within minutes you get that Aquaman has a plan for exactly the kind of movie it wants to be: a straight-up comic book movie made for the fans. We’re talking epic-sized action, unimaginable locations, sweeping romance, larger-than-life heroes and apocalyptic baddies. If comic books are our modern-day myths then Aquaman plays with that idea more overtly than most. Aquaman reels us in right from the start with a romance ripped right out of a fairy tale storybook, as a forbidden love affair between Atlantean Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and human Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) produces a son, Arthur, of mixed heritage. When Atlanna is discovered by a squad of Atlantean soldiers, she defends her life on the land valiantly in a fight that shows Kidman’s surprising skills as an action star and Wan’s inventiveness behind the camera. Arthur grows up, no longer the bullied kid, but a bruising, wise-cracking defender of the innocent. But his heritage also demands he go to the Atlantis he’s never known and claim a throne he has no desire for.
“I’m no king”, Arthur tells us, usually to someone readily agreeing with him. Arthur is a bull in a china shop, and Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) knows it when she goes to recruit him to stop his evil half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) who plans to strike out against us landlubbers. But she needs him, recognizes his strength, lineage, and warrior training by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), so she’ll put up with the big oaf to save the kingdom from ruin. This sets Arthur and Mera on an incredible journey that takes them deep into sea to find a legendary Trident (“I already have one of those”, Arthur says ignorantly at one point), across the Sahara desert, and into the Earth’s core where prehistoric creatures still exist.
The quest is pretty standard as far as big-screen adventures go, but I love the world-building Wan and the screenwriters have come up with. Atlantis is similar to Wakanda in a lot of ways; a technologically advanced civilization hidden away from the rest of the world. And yet tribal culture dominates; disputes are settled in ritual combat, and factions have split off to plot their own ways to rule. You can tell no expense was spared in creating the undersea kingdom. Massive palaces and stadiums inspired by Greek and Roman architecture loom large, and giant sea creatures lurk in darkened caves. The most impressive, and surprisingly terrifying, is the lair of the Trench, a mutated Atlantean offshoot who swarm like something out of Wan’s horror movies. Wan leaves nothing back, really grasping the idea that this movie should be a little bit insane. When Atlanteans swim it’s with a literal sonic boom that trails them. How often are you going to see a long-haired Dolph Lundgren (He’s having quite the month, isn’t he?) leading a seahorse into underwater WWIII? The final battle is simply incredible and like something out of Star Wars, with Momoa riding into war atop a sea monster the size of a small island. It’s absolutely bonkers stuff, but it feels like something that could only happen in a comic book, and yet we’re getting it on the big screen and that is just a terrific feeling.
Some of the choices made aren’t so hot, most of it having to do with dialogue and tone. Momoa and Aquaman are equally unrefined so his corniness kinda works, but the cheesy musical cues are damned heavy-handed. I never quite understood whether we should take Wilson seriously as Orm or not. To be fair, I always have a hard time taking Wilson seriously in anything. I could’ve used more of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Aquaman’s greatest nemesis, Black Manta, who gets a proper motivation for vengeance but a secondary subplot at best. With his giant bug-eyed helmet and red plasma beams he also leaves the greatest visual mark, and I’m eager to see more of the villain in future films. And yeah, I’m confident there will be more Aquaman. It would be a damn shame if we don’t get at least a trilogy of Momoa as the aquatic Justice Leaguer. We need more of him shouting “This is badass!” much to Mera’s royal chagrin. We need to see more of Atlantis, to explore its politics and really dig into the many figures who all seem to have their own agendas. As deeply entertaining as Aquaman proves to be, its full potential hasn’t even begun to break the surface.