2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice offered global audiences a first glimpse of Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, known in the DC Comics world as Aquaman, swimming away from an intrusive underwater camera in a brief mid-film clip. Later, in 2017’s Justice League, Momoa’s presence was not only greater, but one of the highlight points of the entire film. Exposition offered scant answers about his backstory or why he’s a reluctant hero, barely teasing who Aquaman is. Director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, and Furious 7), with a script from David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2) and Will Beall (Training Day TV series), takes audiences away from the surface world to dive into the depths of the seven seas in Aquaman, a film which is at its best when it strays from the action and gets serious.
Arthur Curry is a man straddling two worlds, unaware of where he fits. His mother, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), left the underwater world of Atlantis in a bid to escape an arranged marriage, only to wash up at a lighthouse in Amnesty Bay, Maine, where attendant Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) found and rescued her. After Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, Arthur grows up and into his powers thanks to the support of his father and Atlantean vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe). As an adult, Arthur’s happy to keep to himself and spend time with his father, remaining as far from Atlantis as possible. After teaming up with the newly formed Justice League to prevent Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) from terraforming Earth, however, his existence was more than just rumor, making his appearances at disasters a welcomed sight. His quiet peaceful life changes when his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), now the King of Atlantis, begins to wage war on the surface, forcing Arthur to make a choice between shunning his roots or embracing them.
The one thing most agreed on before Momoa, was that Aquaman was the least liked of all the characters in the DC roster, largely thanks to the belittlement the character’s received over the years. However, despite DC Comics’s track record with live-action films, they put all of that history to rest as all the things that made Arthur the butt of jokes are utilized as the fiercest tools in his arsenal. In fact, they become the very things which make the final confrontation possible. Doing that, and making it feel like an earned revelation, are enough to make even the most doubting audience member an apostle. But it’s not just the powers that make Arthur Aquaman, it’s the character of the man, which the script takes its time digging into. In these moments, Aquaman finds its sea legs as a swashbuckling adventure whose almost perpetually joyous central figure infectiously spreads glee to the furthest corners of the film. This is largely due to Momoa’s performance which is far-less jock bro than depicted in Justice League, yet still roguishly charming. While a film like Aquaman is expected to have glorious fight scenes – which it has several, a few a little tedious and strangely shot – the strength of it lies in the character work. At its core, Aquaman is a film of self-discovery and acceptance, something which Man of Steel and Wonder Woman attempted with mixed results. When the film focuses on these aspects, it absolutely resonates. The moment when Kidman’s Atlanna leaves her family behind for their safety, though inevitable, still feels heart-wrenching, in large part to Kidman’s delivery and Morrison’s physical responses. Similarly, when Arthur and Princess Mera (portrayed again by Amber Heard) journey from the Sahara to Sicily, Italy, looking for clues to a lost Atlantean treasure, it’s not fists that make an impression, but the opportunity to explore their characters and motivations. Superhero stories aren’t just about fighting, but the examination of self. When Aquaman remembers this, it’s a sight to behold.
But audiences don’t come to superhero films for the talking, they come for the bombast and Aquaman’s got it. There are fights on land, in the water, and even places you wouldn’t expect. Each one feels unique to its location and is only mildly ridiculous in its execution. Three particular scenes are fantastic in their execution, but only two can be discussed without diving into spoiler-territory. The first is early in the film when Atlantean soldiers come to arrest Atlanna and she fights them off. As the camera swirls around in a nicely choreographed long-take, the audience sees the real might of the Queen of Atlantis, setting up not only Arthur’s potential as a fighter, but offering a chance to see just how fearsome Atlanna is and how fiercely she loves her family. She could continue to fight off the Atlanteans, but the risk is too great. It’s odd to see that kind of emotionality come from a fight scene in a film like Aquaman, making the experience resonate. The second scene is teased in the trailers where Arthur plunges into the ocean holding a lit flare and the extended sequence is absolutely breath-taking. Above, a nighttime storm fiercely rages. Arthur swims deeper into the dark waters. The camera pulls slowly further back to reveal a large school of creatures on the outskirts of the flare’s brilliant light. Where the first scene serves to offer insight into the characters in a more direct fashion, the second highlights how far Arthur has come in the film. At first a reluctant hero, Arthur’s willingness to swim into the dark side of the ocean implies a shift within himself. It’s not so much an eagerness to jump into battle headfirst depicted in Justice League, but a readiness to do what must be done. Nothing so far compares to the “No Man’s Land” scene in Wonder Woman, but the combination of staging, coloring, and character intent craft a moment which screams heroism.
Unfortunately, where Aquaman suffers is its rush to catch up with what’s already known, creating a glut of exposition-heavy sequences amid a narrative that becomes increasingly complex as it barrels along. As explained above, Arthur’s half-brother Orm wants to declare war on the surface – knowledgeable comic book fans may get some Flashpoint vibes with this declaration – and this alone should be enough to drive the narrative. Except, then it gets more complicated as Orm tries to cajole the other six undersea kingdoms to join his cause, which means the audience needs to remember who each group is as they pop up, along with their significant differences. Adding to this is the internal political implications of Arthur and Orm’s battle for the throne, the inclusion of Aquaman baddie Black Mantra (portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), two romance plot-lines, a splintered training sequence, more back story, and the search for lost Atlantean treasure. Considering all Aquaman is squeezing in, the exposition becomes necessary so the audience doesn’t get too lost, but, at some point, dialogue ceases to be about the characters and their relationship to each other and solely focuses on getting the audience up to speed. When this hits, Aquaman becomes a bit of a slog.
If someone were to try to rank the DC live-action films to this point, it’s safe to say that Wonder Woman remains the best of the bunch, but Aquaman easily ties for second place with Justice League. Narrative glut and a significant reliance on exposition aside, Aquaman is neither a dull experience nor an aggravating one. Rather, it’s an action-packed spectacle that’s frequently jaw-droppingly beautiful in its depiction of oceanic life. Plus, you get exactly what you’d expect based on the vibe established in Justice League: an action romp lead by an actor who brilliantly channels all that makes Arthur Curry engaging with none of the aspects which made him a punchline. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Aquaman’s cast is filled to the brim with exceptionally talent performers, even in the smallest of roles. Their talent and inherent gravitas elevates what could be campy material into something much more emotionally satisfying. More than anything, Momoa’s innate joy and enthusiasm seeps into Arthur and, through him, the whole of Aquaman, making for a fun time at the theater.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.