Aquaman (dir. James Wan) is perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the year. For one thing, the DC superhero movie franchise — or DCEU, or Worlds of DC, or whatever you want to call it — has been at best inconsistent with audiences and critics. (Frankly I like a lot of those movies better than most, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Add that to the fact that Aquaman as a character has, fairly or not, mostly been a punchline for the last several decades, and it is understandable why some might be eager to write off a big budget, live action movie starring the character. And yet, I am here to tell you that, despite any assumptions one might have based on the character or the franchise, Aquaman is a charming and exciting adventure movie.
As a longtime reader of DC comics, I think it’s fair to count myself as an Aquaman fan. I’ve always found him to be a welcome addition to most Justice League stories, and when I was younger I enjoyed his solo book written by Peter David in the 1990s (which resisted the familiar jokes/parodies of the character with some very ’90s aesthetic changes). In fact, I’d say that a good bit of the aesthetic for the film version of the character, if not the world he inhabits, can be traced back to those ’90s comics. That said, I haven’t really kept up with his comics in recent years, aside from the occasional crossover. You might say I’m an Aquaman enthusiast, but by no means an expert.
Coming at the film from that perspective, I can say that the film version of Aquaman has plenty to offer both viewers familiar with the character and those who have no prior knowledge. To that end, the screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall is fairly effective at balancing world-building with character moments and action set pieces. Certainly there is plenty of exposition introducing viewers to the history, politics, and culture of Atlantis, but it is almost always in the service of moving the narrative forward rather than bogging it down. The Atlantis of the film is a place that in both design and description suggests all sorts of backstory and mythology that inform the characters’ beliefs and motivations, while also suggesting plenty of material for future storytelling opportunities.
There isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking about the story of the film. As with Wonder Woman, it operates as a kind of origin film while also building on aspects of the character introduced in the prior DC movies. However, in terms of plot, I think the best way to describe Aquaman is “pulpy.” If you need a Marvel comparison, it’s a little bit like the intrigue of Black Panther joined with the tone of Thor: Ragnarok, although even that doesn’t quite capture it. From its fairly traditional take on the hero’s journey, to the relationships between the leads, to the globetrotting MacGuffin-driven progression of the adventure, it feels like a bit of a throwback; enhanced of course by all manner of frenetic camerawork and CGI. Those effects, overall, are very good, and only occasionally did the realization that the actors had to have been on green screen instead of actually underwater pull me out of the experience. Particularly effective are the larger-scale action set pieces, which manage to maintain two or more strains of simultaneous action without becoming visually confusing. As expected for a superhero movie, the focus is on spectacle. What is impressive is how the film maintains interest and ratchets up the excitement by changing up just what kind of spectacle is presented. From land to the depths of the ocean, to ships and submarines, Wan makes the best of the different settings to offer a wide variety of action sequences. In addition to the usual hero vs. henchmen fisticuffs, Aquaman features high-stakes, one-on-one duels, horror-tinged fights with sea monsters, and large-scale underwater battles, each with their own distinct visual style.
However, the cast is what really makes Aquaman work. Jason Momoa is perfectly cast as the reluctant hero. He walks a difficult line, establishing the chip on his shoulder early on, while allowing enough humor and charm through to avoid being unlikable. Equally good, if not better, is Amber Heard as Mera, who is very much a co-lead in this movie. What could have been a less interesting, more stereotypical female lead in a comic book movie is instead written and performed with more nuance. Honestly, if there is ever another Justice League movie, I sincerely hope Mera gets to play a bigger part in it. Patrick Wilson is delightful, as he is in most things, playing the over-the-top Orm. There are a few lines that a lesser actor would have timidly underplayed, but Wilson fully commits to the pulpy tone and the film is better for it. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II brings intensity and a surprising amount of pathos to his performance as Black Manta, who also looks far cooler in live action than I would have ever expected. Also, this film has easily 70% more Dolph Lundgren in it than I expected, which is a pretty cool bonus. (As an aside, it is wild that in 2018, there are two major wide-release films in theaters at the same time featuring Dolph Lundgren.) There are plenty of other welcome familiar faces, including Nicole Kidman and a genuinely sweet performance from Temuera Morrison. On top of all that, Willem Dafoe rides a shark.
I doubt Aquaman will make many “best of 2018” type lists, and that’s OK. Between this movie and Wonder Woman, I am sincerely hopeful that we are seeing a new, more positive direction for WB’s superhero output. James Wan’s Aquaman is a film that knows exactly what it is and has fun taking you for the ride. It’s exciting, it’s funny, and the performances go a long way in elevating material that could easily have not worked. Amazingly, in 2018, the co-creator of Saw has taken a pop culture punchline of a character and turned him into an ambitious, compelling movie — and that’s no fish story.