Somehow, over the years, the superhero Aquaman has become something of a joke. Sure, on the surface his abilities to breath underwater and to communicate with fish do seem like easy joke fodder. And maybe compared to his comic book contemporaries, Aquaman could seem a little offbeat.
And the character’s transition to the big screen has been a little rocky. When Jason Momoa first appeared as Aquaman on screen in Zack Snyder’s 2016 Justice League some fans were less than please with how the character was presented. To begin with, Snyder neglected to give Arthur any kind of arc to his character in the film. He just shows up, makes some wisecracks and seems to enjoy the idea of getting into fights with the invading alien army the heroes have gathered to fend off. It’s no wonder that some fans nicknamed him, and not in a good way, “Aquabro.” But Zac Snyder’s mishandling of the character in Justice League actually plays to this film’s advantage. It gives Aquaman director James Wan a very good spot from which to start the character’s hero’s journey in this solo film.
The offspring of a lighthouse keeper and an AWOL Atlantian princess, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) doesn’t really know what his place in the world is. Sure, he helped a group of superheroes fight back an alien invasion, but he doesn’t really seem to be all that interested in being a hero himself full time. But when his half-brother Orm, the current ruler of Atlantis, decides that he wants to declare war on the surface world, Arthur becomes a loose end that Orm’s political ambitions cannot have hanging out. Arthur soon finds himself reluctantly paired with Mera (Amber Heard), a princess of one of the other hidden underseas kingdoms with whom Orm is hoping to ally, and on a quest to find the fabled lost trident of Atlan, the first king of Atlantis, in order to claim his rightful place as the ruler of Atlantis and stop the invasion of the surface world.
Wan and his crew lean heavily into much of the mythos that has been developed around the character over the last two or three decades by various writers and artists at DC Comics. We visit a number of different underwater kingdoms, all designed with their own distinct looks. We get ancient prophecies, hidden treasures and giant sea monsters. One of these giant sea monsters is voiced by none other than Julie Andrews, so that’s how crazy this film is allowing itself to get. Aquaman really leans into its comic book roots in a way that those who just think of the character as “the guy who talks to fish” may be pleasantly surprised by.
If you are going to complain that the film looks like a giant CGI-fest, well, honestly, what is this a complaint? What did you expect? This is an ersatz Arthurian legend story told against the backdrop of the Atlantis myth featuring a magical trident subbing in for Excalibur and too many other things that could not be achieved in any manner outside of the confines of a computer. This is the broad fantasy that CG is suited for, and the movie makes the most of creating these new undersea worlds, while still maintaining a grip on its characters.
The story itself hits all the pre-requisite character beats and the cast get through them with enough panache that nothing ever really feels rote. The script supplies some nice grace notes – Arthur’s dad being able to down a beer faster than him – but it never feels as if it is digging deep enough down into its characters the way that the recently released Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse did.
Perhaps fittingly for someone who worked on a couple of installments of The Fast And The Furious franchise, Wan keeps things moving at a brisk pace. The film’s two hour and twenty minute runtime never feels bloated or padded. If anything there are a few moments that could have been lingered on in order to keep them from feeling too rushed.
Aquaman is not the best superhero film of the year. That honor remains being held by Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse. But it is a solid and entertaining entry into the genre and one that ranks above all of Warner Brothers DC Comics-based films of recent vintage that are not named Wonder Woman.