Superhero movies have been abundant for several years now. That’s not a complaint, but necessary to point out while acknowledging the difficulty a filmmaker faces when trying to offer something truly unique in the genre. Director James Wan has answered the call with Aquaman, an epic fantasy adventure on the high seas that feels completely original while still retaining some classic superhero sensibilities.
The story of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) begins with his parents, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) of Atlantis and Tom (Temuera Morrison) falling in love. The sweet opening prologue feels right at home with the DC movie that started it all 40 years ago, Superman. It is also, however, a microcosm of what’s to come as it blends a little old school style with new school thrills.
Once Atlanna is forced into battle to defend her young son, Aquaman is an adrenaline-charged adventure that never stops and rarely slows down. In this scene and the rest of the film, the action is big and stylized in a manner that would never have been conjured by anyone other than Wan. The camera sweeps over, around, and through every pulse-pounding action beat to provide a sense of space and make the audience feel the impact each and every time.
There is no credible argument to be made that Aquaman looks like anything ever seen before in the superhero genre, or anywhere else. As Arthur Curry reluctantly answers the call of Mera (Amber Heard) to save Atlantis and the world from King Orm (Patrick Wilson), we are taken down into the deep and dazzled with underwater visuals that feel almost alien. Wan turns 70% of the planet’s surface into his canvas, creating several incredible environments, all with their own massive sense of scale. This is the stuff dreams are made of, only bigger.
Aquaman is undoubtedly a feast for the eyes, but the movie would not hold up if that’s all that if offered. Fortunately, the film is also food for the soul with a charming hero in Momoa’s Arthur who experiences something so many heroes are denied in these films, personal growth. Arthur makes a decision in this film that costs him later. Rather than responding in anger or by dishing out an ass-whooping, Arthur actually reflects on how his own choices have led to the situation in which he finds himself and learns from it.
Arthur has a lot to learn about what it means to be a king and, more importantly, a hero. It is his journey, portrayed perfectly by Momoa, that elevates the film beyond superficial fun to achieve something genuinely worthwhile.
Rivaling Arthur in this film is his half-brother Orm, who hopes to unite all underwater kingdoms in a war against the surface world. It sounds diabolical, but consider that Orm’s first attack against the surface is with the trash we’ve dumped in the ocean and you’ll see he has a point. Wilson goes a long way in humanizing Orm, but the character is a little underserved. The emotional conflict between Arthur and Orm doesn’t quite get where this film wants it to be.
Any shortcomings in the dynamic between Arthur and Orm is largely compensated for by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the real hero here. One of the coolest characters designs in comic book history is brought to life in stunning fashion. Black Manta looks awesome, but the man underneath the oversized helmet is what makes this character the film’s best antagonist. His beef with Arthur is real and they are on a collision course of their own making. There is plenty of Black Manta in this one, but also room for more later on down the line. Aquaman 2 can’t get here soon enough.
James Wan has a lot of neat tricks in this film, but the greatest of all is the way he turns the arguments against making an Aquaman movie into its secret weapon. Wan is unafraid and willing to embrace all that is cheesy and silly about this mythology and make it cool. Laughter is permitted and even encouraged where it needs to be, but then it’s right back to the action. Yeah, the guy “talks to fish,” but he’ll also put down a submarine full of pirates and bury a trident in your chest.
Comic book fans will be delighted to see just how much Aquaman Wan was able to cram into Aquaman. Aside from more Black Manta, there isn’t much being saved for sequels. This was clearly made with the right mentality that, for now at least, this is “THE” Aquaman movie and not just “THE FIRST” Aquaman movie. Black Manta, Ocean Master (a.k.a. Orm), and the Trench? It’s everyone into the ocean as they’re all here and they’ve got company.
Warner Bros. has weathered some stormy seas in recent attempts to adapt DC’s iconic characters to the silver screen. Wonder Woman was a ray of hope last year and Aquaman is an emphatic statement that DC Films and Warner Bros. are back and here to stay. Director James Wan has given the studio its best, most complete DC movie of the current era. Time will tell, but Aquaman may one day be in the conversation with the classics of decades past.