And what a spectacle it is! It shrewdly blends comic book lore, Arthurian legend and Lovecraftian horrors with the sensibility of a 1930s serial, visuals worthy of Avatar and the tone of a serious-minded Saturday morning cartoon. This demands the biggest IMAX screen you can find, but I’d also advise you to see it at the earliest possible morning matinee, preferably while still dressed in your footsy pajamas. The ethics of sneaking food into the theatre notwithstanding, a bowl of cereal-and-milk is also recommended. But nothing healthy, as this is the cinematic equivalent of the sweetest, most calorific breakfast food.
The origin story material is Mad Libs-level generic, and it has too much irrelevant past-tense exposition. Moreover, the physics of this underwater world make little sense (I wish there was a scene where Arthur takes his first underwater dump, but alas). The good news is that director James Wan and writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall and Geoff Johns know not to sweat the small stuff.
It’s a long movie, but it uses its 142-minute running time to slowly build its world and indulge in its mythology while keeping the focus on its core superhero. Jason Momoa oozes macho charisma without laying on the dude-bro schtick any thicker than required. He’s a rebellious “dude,” but he’s not a jerk, and he is a sympathetic hero.
Amber Heard shows up at the half-hour mark, at which point she has about as much screen time as our title super friend. It’s as much a two-hander as Wonder Woman, albeit with a more conventional “reluctant male hero and persistent female mentor” relationship. She has quite a bit of fun as a super-powered heroine of her own accord, and she has a certain droll deadpan that will remind you of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. She’s both the love interest and a fully-functioning co-star. Patrick Wilson hams it up at every opportunity as Orm, the current king of Atlantis who is trying (understandably?) to gear up support to wage war on the surface world, while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gets a surprisingly nuanced arc as Black Manta.
This is the kind of movie that opens with a surprisingly-moving father/son moment even as said father/son has just murdered a dozen innocent people. This kicks off a dynamite action beat as “the Aquaman” just unleashes hell on a bunch of pirates. It’s a claustrophobic and punishing smackdown that utilises the various moving parts and architectural variables of a submarine to its choreographical advantage. It also offers Aquaman at his most Justice League Unlimited-level bad-ass. After that, we get some family bonding with Arthur’s human dad (Temuera Morrison) and then we’re off to the races. And yes, we eventually get to visit the undersea world of Atlantis, and it is a visual marvel that, yes, earns comparisons to Pandora or Wakanda.
The IMAX version expands to fill most of the screen during many/most of these underwater sequences, and for that alone the film (if possible) is required viewing in IMAX 2-D. The scope and scale of this picture is appropriately huge, and Don Burgess shoots it all in loving detail. The action is varied (chases, fistfights, mass battles, etc.) and delivered via long and fluid takes that emphasise clever camera movement over copious cuts. I won’t reveal how it ends, but the third act (which has been mostly unspoiled thus far in the marketing) absolutely delivers the gonzo-bananas goods while Momoa looks indisputably iconic in the classic orange Aquaman costume.
As a story, Aquaman is run-of-the-mill, mixing bits of National Treasure, Thor, Black Panther (#OrmWasRight) and Green Lantern (in a good way) into an entertaining stew. But the devil is in the details, and the screen is filled with delightful details, Easter Eggs and visual gags from beginning to end. Save for a reference to Steppenwolf, this is an entirely self-contained movie, and even the mid-credit cookie is entirely in the service of this specific franchise.
It is colourful, funny, swashbuckling-ly violent big-screen entertainment, with a simple story providing a framework for charming characters and top-notch spectacle. The third act soars accordingly, delivering the promised absurdist “Lord of the Rings, but underwater” action, and by that time we like the characters enough to give a damn.
While Wonder Woman and Batman v Superman (especially the “Ultimate Edition”) have higher highs and lower lows, Aquaman may be the most consistently good movie in the DC Films franchise. It’s also the first one of these that peaks in the third act. And it exemplifies the notion of the DC Films movie as a bigger, splashier and wackier counterpoint to the MCU, one now less concerned with being grimdark and willing to embrace its inner Challenge of the Superfriends if the occasion calls for it. To paraphrase an old 30 Rock line, Aquaman has the chutzpah and confidence of a much more successful franchise. Moreover, it has the confidence of an unapologetically insane adventure movie that doesn’t have the weight of a universe on its shoulders.
Aquaman is 20,000 leagues over the top, which is exactly where it belongs.