The DC Extended Universe has had a few more issues than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not for nothing, but Man of Steel was two thirds of a great take of the original superhero that turned into a CGI 9/11 mess, Batman v Superman was a dull, overlong, muddled mess that crammed six films worth of story into a single film with only fleeting moments of brilliance, Suicide Squad was a compromised but fun enough mess with enough ideas to warrant a second viewing. Then came Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins’ game-changing story of love conquering all troubles and being the greatest thing in the world; it smashed records and was a fun ride that called to mind Richard Donner’s Superman (the granddaddy of the genre). Justice League was a mess, but now with a slate of intriguing films on the horizon, the DC universe can do anything, which leads us to James Wan’s Aquaman.
Aquaman is the first post-Justice League film from DC, and it shows that the lessons from previous DC adaptations have been learnt. Gone is the dark colour pallette, the reluctance to have fun, the overstuffing of storylines and the dour tone. Welcome a bright, epic adventure film with plenty of things going boom, and laughs to be had along the way. James Wan has had an extraordinary fourteen year career. Having made Saw and then moving on to lesser seen films like Dead Silence and Death Sentence (the latter being a great little revenge flick) he made films like The Conjuring 1 & 2, Insidious 1 & 2 and then out of nowhere directed Furious 7, the best of the Fast and Furious franchise even with a sad loss of Paul Walker during filming. Here, Wan crams everything into the film like a child playing with action figures.
Jason Momoa returns as Arthur Curry, half human half Atlantean, the first born child of Queen Atlanna and heir to the throne. His destiny is forced upon him when his half-brother King Orm begins manipulating the seven underwater kingdoms into attacking the surface world, and things go bonkers.
From the off, Wan might as well be handing out copies of his favorite 80s movies. It’s no secret that most superhero directors want to show you the movies they’re inspired by, but here it shows more than ever. For people who like old-school adventure films like Romancing the Stone (brilliant), Raiders of the Lost Ark (brilliant) and The Goonies (brilliant) you’re in for a fun ride. There are moments that look like throwbacks to Stephen Sommers original The Mummy (brilliant but less so), and the film is all the better for it.
Momoa plays his superhero like a slightly hungover bouncer, reluctant to get involved in a world he has no real stake in, his only tether to the human world being his father (a very well used Temuera Morrison), and his claim to the throne of the ocean holds no interest. Having rocked up to the party in Justice League like a absolute dudebro and yelled things like “my man” and “i dig it”, this time around he has a bit more heavy lifting to do. Given his frame, his eyebrow scar and his voice like gravel there is so much to relish in his performance here – he stands confidently with other heroes of the DC universe as being distinct but of that world.
The film also has that old-fashioned feel, thanks to a great supporting cast – Morrison along with Nicole Kidman play Curry’s parents well, in a well-done prologue showing the quick romance between the two that leads to young Arthur being born. Patrick Wilson decides to chew his scenery as the villainous Orm, deciding that other royal sibling-relation superheroes are OTT enough, with none of the charm of Loki, the nuance of Killmonger or even the manipulation of Ares, this time around we get a shouting Wilson, going for absolute broke and clearly having an absolute blast. Willem Dafoe and Dolph Lundgren aren’t used to their full potential, but they flesh out the world, and are convincing even as they pretend to swim in the underwater world.
It’s actually the secondary villain of the revenge-driven Black Manta played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II that gets some of the best sequences, he has a cool suit and the guy looks like he means business, laying waste to a small Sicilian village in his revenge quest against Curry.
There are some fun cameos along the way (Julie Andrews voices a giant sea monster for one), and the score by Rupert Greyson-Williams flips between a superhero score and something resembling Tron’s soundtrack, but it works. This is a love letter to those swashbuckling adventures of days gone by, and the film doesn’t mind being silly.
There are some awkward issues: a lot of action sequences begin with someone being blindsided by an explosion, and the underwater hair effects seem a little uneasy, but even so, neither undo the film because Wan knows not to do the same old action sequence. There’s a fun Tron/Star Wars style escape from Atlantis, there are sword fights, parkour rooftop running, and good old-fashioned fisticuffs.
By no means does this make for a perfect viewing, and at two and a half hours the film does sometimes go into overlong time, but even as the CGI heavy third act begins to weigh hard, there’s another bizarre sea monster ready to show up, including giant angry sharks, big crab people, a CGI Djimon Hounsou, seahorses big enough to ride and enough jokes to keep you going.
In the end, this is a movie that doesn’t want to upset or bore, it wants to entertain, offering good old-fashioned thrills without being too tethered to the movies before it, taking a leaf from Wonder Woman’s book and like that film heralding a brighter future for the DC Universe. If Shazam! and Birds of Prey can keep up this momentum, DC might have a future after all, and as for Aquaman, if there was ever a reason to go see a big movie it might be the sight of an octopus playing the drums.
Final Grade: A
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