'Aquaman': Film Review

Everybody likes an Aquaman.
12/21/2018

Given the uneven quality of its DC Extended Universe entries, Warner Bros. comes pretty close to giving its target comics audience what it wants in this adaptation starring Jason Momoa and Nicole Kidman.

If the Trump administration wants an ideal ambassador to negotiate the current trade difficulties with Beijing, there's a brawny wet guy it might want to engage.

Taking the notable step of opening a big franchise launcher in China a couple of weeks before its American debut, Warner Bros. saw its latest attempt to get the DC franchise right rake in $94.1 million there over its first three days.

There's definitely no language barrier when it comes to the mass-market appeal of Aquaman, which consists of extremely elemental dialogue exchanges surrounded by a flood of waterlogged action sequences. Given the drastically uneven quality of its DC film universe entries, the studio here looks to have come closer to giving its target comics audience what it wants here than with anything other than Wonder Woman.

Like that film, this one is considerably boosted by the appeal of the actor playing the title character, in this case likable hunk Jason Momoa, promoted to leading man after previously appearing in more limited scenes in 2016's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and last year's Justice League.

If you want a real movie with real characters using something beyond a third-grade vocabulary and doing things other than getting preposterously physical in, on or near water, Aquaman will be a very trying two and a half hours (actually less if you don't stay for what seems like 15 minutes of very slowly crawling end credits — why can't these be sped up as on TV?). The laws of physics are meant to be broken, characters make easy-to-understand statements rather than have conversations, and the resemblance to a video game is more pronounced than is any kinship with real movies made before this century.

However, Aquaman is so elemental in its tall-tale telling and its concentration on royalty and the overriding significance of battle that it feels closer in nature to myth than do most comics-derived epics. This is arguably what works in its favor in comparison to most Warner Bros./DC features other than those by Christopher Nolan; even as it indulges its technical wizardry, the film is most rooted in its scenes of greeting, farewell and the clashes of titans in the ancient sense.

Royal backstory consumes the opening, as we see how, way back in another century — in 1985, to be precise — the aquatic Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), fleeing an arranged marriage, washed ashore at Amnesty Bay, Massachusetts, met a solitary lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and subsequently birthed a future king named — what else? — Arthur. Mom is soon gone but, grown to strapping young manhood, Arthur is drawn to the sea, where he finds a whole submerged world waiting for him.

Lying beneath the waves, among other things, are Atlantis and its citizenry, who can talk and move and scheme and fight just like people — and superheroes — do on the surface. It's a monarchic world, one lorded over by King Orm (Patrick Wilson), looking mean and dashing, with a vast army at his disposal, although Arthur has underwater kin himself in the person of royal counsel Vulko (Willem Dafoe, looking rather out of his normal neighborhood).

As in any imperialistic world, ancient or otherwise, there is intrigue, plotting, power abused, vengeance sought, wrongs to be righted and, in the process, adventures to be had. Springboarding the action is Orm's desire to, at last, amalgamate the seven wondrous oceanic kingdoms. With this accomplished, he figures, he can then set his sights on the continents and world domination, a guarantee of conflicts to come.

Amid his vast oceanic tour, Arthur joins up with scarlet-haired beauty Mera (Amber Heard, rather one-note), the princess of another ocean district presided over by King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, suddenly out and about again with this and Creed II). Arthur and Mera make a fine-looking pair, although it takes quite a while for anything to percolate between them, she being all business and he being pretty chill about everything unless really pressed.

There are innumerable action sequences in Aquaman, as if pulled out of a hat on cue to sate the appetites of the gathered masses. The majority of the time, the action set pieces seem quite arbitrary, no doubt because they are, dictated by the requirements of the format rather than by some organic, intrinsic narrative need. This saddles the overlong film with a ponderous, grinding feel, one driven by a sense of obligation more than the glee of inspiration. Rarely in the world of superhero filmmaking has the thought occurred that less can be more.

Given this, one is grateful to have Momoa for company. Unlike some strutters who can't hide how delighted they are to show off their trainer-honed bods, Momoa wears his superb physique casually and his take-it-or-leave-it, devil-may-care attitude makes the narrative's long haul much easier to bear. It's hard to intuit from this sort of film what else the actors in them might be capable of — Henry Cavill has since shown abilities never hinted at in his Superman outings — but Momoa holds center screen easily and has a lightness that counterbalances his size very nicely.

There is scarcely a scene in Aquaman that couldn't have benefited from the fun sense of wit and surprise that Momoa delivers more or less on his own. Kidman supplies short-lived warmth and gravitas as Aquaman's mum, while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has a side role as a vengeance-minded fighter. Technically, the film is everything its fan base wants and expects, and the underwater setting imparts a sometimes enchanted feel that at least distinguishes it from most other superhero epics. Rupert Gregson-Williams' efficient score seems to almost never let up.

Production company: DC Entertainment, Peter Safran Productions
Distributor: Warner Bros.

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison
Director: James Wan
Screenwriters: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beal, story by Geoff Johns, James Wan, Will Beal, based on characters created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger
Producers: Peter Safran, Rob Cowan
Executive producers: Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Jon Berg, Geoff Johns, Walter Hamada
Director of photography: Don Burgess
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Editor: Kirk Morri
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Visual effects supervisor: Kelvin McIlwain
Casting: Anne McCarthy, Kellie Roy

Rated PG-13, 148 minutes