Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman
Director: James Wan
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall
Aquaman, the latest instalment in the DC canon, is this preposterous miracle of a movie that manages to be fantastically, stupidly ridiculous without ever seeming to laugh at itself the way so many of us used to laugh at the fish-talking hero. That’s not an easy effect to pull off and it takes more than creativity, talent and a blockbuster budget to sustain. You need an unreserved sense of sincerity and a total, wholehearted, unironic love of the material in all its campiness, weirdness and silliness. That is part of the reason why Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed where Wonder Woman and Aquaman succeeded; they were produced by a studio that was embarrassed to be making comic book superhero movies. This doesn’t mean that superhero movies can’t be serious and adult, Christopher Nolan proved that they can, but too many filmmakers (Zack Snyder in particular) mistake that gloominess and grittiness for maturity. Aquaman is a mythological opera, a Shakespearian family drama and an Arthurian fable with themes of love, duty and diplomacy and an environmental message. It also happens to have a nation of crab people, a 1,000-foot leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, and an octopus playing the drums.
Despite having already appeared in two previous films, Aquaman is very much an origin story for Jason Momoa’s scruffy, roguish swashbuckler. We learn about the circumstances of his birth, which was brought about by a forbidden romance between stranded Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and her rescuer, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). Their union and the life of their son however are both threatened by the Atlantean forces sent out to bring their absconding queen to justice and so Atlanna is left with no choice but to return home where she is sentenced to death for the crime of birthing a half-breed son. Since then Arthur (Momoa) has had to grapple with being the outcast of two separate worlds. He grows up to become the long haired, impossibly buff, ornately tattooed aquatic superman we know from Justice League; a guy who just wants to be left on his own to drink, brood and protect endangered ships and submarines from the perils of the ocean. In his first solo movie Arthur emerges as a reluctant hero who, at the behest of the fiery-haired Atlantean idealist Mera (Amber Heard), embraces his destiny to save the nation that rejected him and killed his mother from the tyranny of his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who plans to launch an attack against the land dwellers in retaliation for all of their polluting of the sea.
Aquaman adds a bit of an Indiana Jones tweak to the traditional superhero origin formula by sending Arthur and Mera on a quest in search of the legendary lost trident of Atlan, which according to the Atlantean councillor and Arthur’s mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), will give he who wields it the authority to rule the seven seas as Ocean Master. Thus we’re treated to an adventure story that spans the globe, bringing us to the Sahara and Siciliy, with occasional interruptions, usually by the pirate mercenary David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), so that a fight scene can happen. Personally I could have used a little more of the riddle and puzzle- solving expedition because the movie can get a little tiresome and repetitive as it gets bogged down in the underwater political conflict between the armoured shark-riding and the armoured sea horse-riding (because it’s that kind of movie) tribes. When the action starts, it is awesome and silly in equal measure. There’s a delightfully childish charm to the way Wan is so ready and willing to embrace the absurdity of scuba suited Atlantean troops and their balloon-headed leader emerging on land in broad daylight to engage in some rooftop, hand-to-hand combat. Rather than shrouding them in darkness or using choppy editing to hide the kitschier elements, Wan presents the fight and chase sequence with all the barefaced glee of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers kung-fu showdown. The camera view is far-reaching and the movement free-flowing, ensuring that not a single goofy detail gets missed.
It’s interesting to consider how far superhero movies have come since the days of the first X-Men movie where they decided to adorn their characters with plain black leather rather than yellow spandex for fear that they might look too silly. This is something that the earlier DC Extended Universe movies struggled with as well when they opted for a grim, murky colour palette, presumably because they felt it would help sell the audience on a superhero cinematic universe that was altogether grittier, darker and more serious than Marvel’s. Aquaman himself was assigned a steely costume dominated by black and grey. Now he’s in a movie that adorns him with the radiantly orange and green armour he wears in the comic books, where the heroine’s hair shines in lava-red splendour and where the ocean is brought to dazzling life through sparkling shades of pale blue and aqua green and every colour in between. This movie adopts such saturated hues that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you missed a deleted scene where Arthur stumbled his way into the Technicolour world of Oz. By giving the film such a rich and diverse colour scheme, Wan makes it all the easier to appreciate the wealth of detail contained within each frame from the way that Atlantis is so luminously lit by the array of sea creatures that inhabit it to the ostentatiously varied choice of armour that sea-dwellers sport, including those that come with oversized crab and lobster claws.
As outrageous and over the top as Aquaman can get, Jason Momoa grounds it all with the confidence and charm of a star destined to have a lucrative career in the movies. He adopts a persona much like that which Dwayne Johnson has spent the last decade or so perfecting; the tough but loveable doofus who could just as soon join you for a drink and get rip-roaringly plastered as he could beat you into a bloody pulp without breaking a sweat. He can be solemn and thoughtful when he wants to be and he can be badass and funny. Supporting Momoa in his star-making turn is a cast that is devotedly committed to the movie in all of its total campiness. There’s something utterly enjoyable about watching Oscar worthy actors give themselves over to a thoroughly bonkers movie and whether it works (see Alec Guinness in Star Wars) or doesn’t (see Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons) the result is always magical. Dafoe and Kidman are such actors and watching them wield tridents and ride hammerhead sharks with such sincerity and gravitas is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Another is Wilson playing the kind of whiny, diabolical villain you just love to hate, (imagine Commodus from Gladiator and you’re not far off).
Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about Aquaman is what a surprisingly progressive movie it is. Despite the numerous fight scenes that occur and the thrillingly invigorating ways in which they’re shot, Aquaman proves itself more willing than your average superhero blockbuster to challenge the notion that all conflict can be resolved through violence alone. Even when modern Hollywood movies preach about the value and necessity of peace, co-existence and empathy, too often that idealism gets undermined when the hero ends up having to take up arms to defeat the baddie. This was one of the issues I had with Wonder Woman, a movie whose hero was a paragon of compassion, and Black Panther, a movie of political daring almost unheard of in Hollywood, which both had their heroes win their victories by punching and blasting their foes into submission. In the moments where it matters most, it isn’t strength and might that win the day in Aquaman but de-escalation, diplomacy and forgiveness. It’s not as subversive in its aversion to violence as, say, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it is an outstanding break in the precedent set by the nihilism of the Snyder DC movies and could mark a revolutionary step forward in the evolution of the superhero genre.