It’s hard to describe just how insane Aquaman is. This is a movie with underwater ocean battles whose scope rivals anything seen in Star Wars, where fish people charge into the fray riding giant sharks, seahorses, and even stranger creatures than that. There are living, breathing dinosaurs in Aquaman, and they’re maybe the 15th or 20th craziest thing in the movie. The dinosaurs are mostly used as set dressing in background shots, and nobody–even Aquaman himself, who’s spent most of his life on the surface–ever comments on their existence or acknowledges them at all. There’s too much other stuff going on to devote even one second of dialogue to the fact that, hey, it turns out dinosaurs aren’t extinct after all. Neat.
It’s not that the plot doesn’t make sense, or that it’s hard to follow. Aquaman is creatively bonkers–the insanity in the movie is a choice that was made, over and over, in every aspect of the film’s creation. Atlantean battle armor looks like something the invading Martians would wear in campy mid-century science fiction, while Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry and Patrick Wilson’s King Orm battle to the death in an underwater stadium that seems to hold millions and millions of people. These are elements that would have probably been toned down and reduced to something less heightened in another superhero movie, but with Aquaman, director James Wan has declared the DCEU the place where comic books movies can just be comic book movies. Overall, that makes the film better, though it has plenty of problems as well.
Aquaman follows Arthur Curry, the titular hero, on his journey to claim his throne and save Atlantis, and maybe the whole world while he’s at it. Aquaman was first properly introduced to the DCEU in last year’s Justice League, and this is the same version of the character we got then: gruff, sarcastic, tough, self-effacing, and irreverent. To some, Momoa’s character was the best part of Justice League, and he’s equally great here. Early on, when Aquaman is saving the crew of a submarine during a scene in which one of the villains, Black Manta, is introduced, there’s a single shot of completely random slow motion. Momoa walks briefly through a cloud of hissing steam while a snarling guitar lick announces his–not his arrival, because it’s in the middle of a fight. It announces that he’s awesome? Moments like that are a recurring thing–they don’t make a lot of sense, but they get the blood pumping.
Although we already met Aquaman in Justice League, this is definitely an origin story. It starts at the beginning: with lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) finding Nicole Kidman’s Queen Atlanna washed up on the rocks during a storm. They fall in love, have Arthur, and are separated over the course of a couple of voice-over’d minutes that set the breakneck pace for the rest of the movie: Aquaman has no time to dwell on anything besides its massive, complex action scenes. Everything else, from the many lore dumps that lay out Atlantean history to the slow motion shot of Arthur and Mera (Amber Heard) emerging from the ocean with a cover of Toto’s Africa playing in the background, is just an inconvenience that the movie hurries past as it sweeps you along in its mighty current.
The whole thing is buoyed by a couple of extremely stellar performances. Kidman is good as Queen Atlanna, but she’s in the movie only very briefly. Likewise with Morrison as Arthur’s dad–he’s fun, especially during cute scenes like him and Arthur chugging beers together with breakfast (less so when his uncanny digitally de-aged face is delivering cheesy lines like “Up here, we feel [our tears],” but that’s hardly his fault). As Arthur’s trainer and King Orm’s vizier, the always wonderful Willem Dafoe’s Vulko has an important role in the overall narrative, but not much to do in the movie’s actual plot. And Heard is surprisingly flat as Mera–she looks the part, and that clown red wig isan’t actually that bad once you get used to it, but she lacks the grandiosity and the gravitas to deliver the movie’s unendingly cheesy dialogue.
That’s where Patrick Wilson has her beat in the role of King Orm, and it’s him–along with Momoa–who make Aquaman’s corny script sound good. Picture this scene: A CGI crab person asks King Orm if he expects to be called “king,” and Wilson has to reply, “Not king. Call me”–dramatic pause–“Ocean Master.” It’s so, so silly, but the Conjuring and Watchmen actor delivers every line with a searing intensity matched only by all the underwater lava that somehow exists in this movie. Keep in mind, this is the kind of film where waves crash dramatically and orcas tend to leap gracefully from the water, loud orchestral score crescendoing, whenever characters say something important. Don’t think too hard about it; just enjoy the spectacle.
Besides all the Aquaman-quipping, underwater politics, family drama, and massive battles, there’s a lot more going on in Aquaman. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has a fleeting but effective turn as villain Black Manta, who you’ll kind of root for even as he destroys half of Sicily trying to get to Arthur. Arthur and Mera also go on this big, Goonies-style side quest in the middle of the movie hunting down an ancient trident that has some kind of unspecified magic water powers that will supposedly help them in some way. It’s here the movie’s biggest plot breakdowns occur, such as when an artifact that supposedly dates back to when the Sahara desert was still an ocean–that’s 7 million years, minimum–leads them directly to some statue in Italy that’s at most, like, 2,000 years old.
Or there’s the time when Arthur makes an offhand comment about Pinocchio, which Mera has naturally never heard of, and then two scenes later a little girl in a market randomly hands Mera a copy of the book Pinocchio. It’s the kind of gag a writer came up with because they thought it would be cute if Arthur could reference Pinocchio, and Mera could later make fun of him about it. And sure, it is cute–but why would a random little girl hand Mera a copy of the exact book Arthur casually made a reference to earlier that day? Why would that little girl in Sicily even have a copy of Pinocchio with her? Does it matter at all? (No.)
And then there are Aquaman’s completely nutso musical cues. Wan likes to punctuate scene transitions with songs, and while some of these are funny, others are straight up baffling. That’s doubly true when they only last a few seconds–you’re liable to get whiplash from the way this movie jumps around from scene to scene, blasting your ears with different random-sounding songs, changing tones on a dime and never looking back. They aren’t the only strange direction choice; the camera spends a ridiculous amount of time spinning dizzying circles around characters during complex flashbacks that blend seamlessly back into the present day, or zipping around them in impossible ways, because when your CGI budget is apparently infinite, why not? There’s also this incredibly weird thing where four or five different scenes throughout the movie are interrupted out of nowhere by massive explosions, the action literally blowing up quieter scenes of dialogue or exposition, as if to shriek, “No one gives a s*** how long ago Atlantis was founded, go back to the sharks and lasers and battles now!!!!”
Those shrieks are justified–this movie knows what it is. And you have to give credit where it’s due–Aquaman’s underwater universe is incredibly visually creative. The ocean aesthetic permeates every aspect of Atlantean culture, from Mera’s ceremonial jellyfish dress to the warships shaped like squids, eels, whales, and more. Underwater fights like the duel between Arthur and Orm are choreographed in a way that would make no sense on land, taking full advantage of the unusual setting, the characters’ superhuman abilities, and crazy weaponry like magical tridents and hyper-powerful plasma lasers. At one point, we get a brief flash of an octopus absolutely wailing on a giant drum set, and as soon as you have time to process what the hell you’re seeing, it’s gone and on to the next thing. If nothing else, stuff like that will make you eager to re-watch this utterly insane movie.
James Wan has stated that he wanted to make an “action adventure fantasy movie” rather than a superhero movie, and something with a lighter tone than past DCEU films like Batman v. Superman, Man of Steel, and Justice League. In that, he completely succeeded. Much of Aquaman–more than your average superhero movie, it seems–was taken straight off the pages of comic books, for better or worse. But Aquaman isn’t simply a bunch of remixed comics elements thrown together. It’s a movie with its own over the top, tongue in cheek, inconsistent, massive, irreverent, CGI-soaked tone, aesthetic, and world. And somehow, it works well enough that you’ll be calling Arthur king by the end.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Incredibly creative visuals||Some really uncanny CGI|
|Massive, impressive action scenes||Strange tonal leaps from scene to scene|
|Generally funny, tongue-in-cheek tone||Baffling, jarring musical cues|
|Stellar performances from Patrick Wilson and Jason Momoa||Cheesy dialogue|
|Underwater scenes look surprisingly good||A couple of huge plot holes|
|A generally insane movie (in a fun way)|