Long seen as a floating punchline in the superhero pantheon – check out the cute seahorse he rides in 1970s cartoon series Super Friends, or the constant derision in ‘00s Hollywood suck-up sitcom Entourage – it’s only in an era where superheroes rule the movie world that Aquaman can resurface as a serious blockbuster. Briefly introduced in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and given full alumni status in the subsequent Justice League team-up, finally Arthur Curry, half-man, half-Atlantean, gets to surf his own wave. And it’s a frickin’ tsunami of a movie, that could well either (further) drown your faith in the DCEU, or pick you up and toss you around for the ride of your life.
“SHARKS WITH LASERS”
Make no mistake, Aquaman is So. Much. Movie. This is world-building on an epic scale, that uses its undersea setting to conjure seven, wholly diverse undersea kingdoms – Atlantis is but one realm – and all manner of creatures that inhabit them. From prehistoric-looking Tylosaurs and sea (war)horses that would eat the Super Friends version as a snack, to — as requested by Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil — “sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads”. Though not even Dr. Evil came up with an octopus playing the drums.
That’s a strong indication of Aquaman’s tone and welcome tongue-in-cheek humour, thankfully a long way from DC’s po-faced Man of Steel. An opening submarine skirmish has Arthur, part-surfer bro, part-lumberjack, grizzle to various minions he’s felling: “Hurry up, I’m missing Happy Hour for this.” And despite dealing with the weight of expectation, and being built like a Hawaiian island, Jason Momoa has a lightness about him that suggests that he, never mind Arthur, is ultimately enjoying the whole thing. It’s a clear, but deliberate, pointer from the film’s star as well as director James Wan for how to receive their fishy tale: take their bait, and let them reel you in.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Given that Zack Snyder’s serious Superman films still have very devout acolytes, this shift might be too jarring for some. Compare the scenes of Arthur discovering his powers, leaping with dolphins, and the like, to Clark Kent’s tortured adolescence. Or Bruce Wayne’s brooding. As with all other DC heroes, there’s past family trauma and separation at the heart of the hero’s journey. Here, the forbidden union of human lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temeura Morrison), and Atlantean queen, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), can only end in tears, exile and supposed death for Arthur’s mother (though given that she’s played by Kidman, take that with a massive pinch of salt water). And hey, at least, she isn’t called Martha.
Despite this underlying tragedy, Aquaman isn’t even as earnest as the Justice League or Wonder Woman films. Though it has more in common with the latter in its, er, fish-out-of-water storyline. Arthur is summoned back to Atlantis by Princess Mera (Amber Heard), to thwart his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) from uniting the sea kingdoms in all-out war against the surface-dwellers. To do so, however, he’s going to need his father’s missing Trident, the symbol of the true heir to the Atlantean throne. And that ain’t something you’re just gonna find snorkelling off the coast.
If the tale of an Arthur requiring to draw a sword – sorry, trident – from its resting place to prove his royal heritage sounds more than a little familiar to Camelot fans, then welcome to one of Aquaman’s major traits: its enormous debt to a whole clutch of pop culture mythology. John Carter of Mars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar (a doubloon for James Cameron’s thoughts on his eternally delayed and allegedly partly undersea-set sequels, right about now), obviously Thor and Superman, even Moana… and when you so explicitly channel so many other beloved and successful stories, you’d better have some fresh surprises of your own in store.
And that’s where Aquaman is more of a damp squib. It’s effectively a fantasy quest with boring clues and thoroughly predictable beats and tropes, from a Chosen One narrative to many, many vertical-drop, bended-knee Superhero Landings. Moreover, the action – and there is So. Much. Action – is largely more indestructible-force-meets-immovable-object fisticuffs with little consequence. Slow-motion, 360-degree, 300-style combat and one-shot sequences are so clearly CGI-extended that they no longer possess dramatic or emotional weight. Lose even half such scenes and replace them with more character-driven drama, or even percussive molluscs, and you have a chance at crafting your own legend, rather than borrowing others.
A BIGGER SPLASH
When Aquaman does settle into its characters, and creating its own mythology, it’s at its most powerful, and beautiful. Compare the original Aquaman character, basically an all-Aryan, blond Ken doll, with the swarthy, tattooed, bear-like Momoa, an actor of mixed Native Hawaiian heritage, and it’s a welcome shot of diversity to the superhero look. Momoa has a winning twinkle to go with his impressive heft, and a charming father-son chemistry with Morrison. Sadly, he and Heard don’t connect nearly as well, soggy relations to Gal Gadot and Chris Pine’s touching Wonder Woman duo, with Mera an underwritten and one-dimensional “strong woman”; and Wilson’s psycho-eco-warrior bad guy and Willem Defoe’s loyal mentor are under-utilised.
But this is ultimately the superhero movie as whacked-out visual experience, and by this standard, Aquaman is hard to beat. It won’t be fashionable to say, because the film lacks Black Panther’s social relevance, and also, frankly, overall excellence, but the production design and art direction here (take a bow, Bill Brzeski, Fred Palacio and teams) are equally groundbreaking. It’s undersea as outer space, prog rock album covers come to life, working in references to ancient Rome and futuristic sci-fi. Monsters have a genuinely disturbing, almost Lovecraftian physicality, and veteran DoP Don Burgess (Forrest Gump) renders it all in eye-popping, psychedelic visions. There’s one wide shot in particular, as Arthur and Mera dive with a shimmering neon-red flare to escape teeming Trench beasts, that’s one of the movie images of the year.
IS ‘AQUAMAN’ ANY GOOD?
A headache for some, a head-trip for others, Aquaman is spectacle cinema in broad, dumb, fun strokes, with a charismatic lead and truly dazzling visuals to distract from pesky details like complex characterisation and a compelling narrative. But dive into its wavelength, and you might well find yourself letting out an Arthur Curry ‘YEEEAAAA-UHHH!” It really depends on what floats your boat. Or, rather, battle shark. With frickin’ lasers, naturally.