Film Review: “Aquaman” Is, at Least, Better Than “Justice League”

Film poster: “Aquaman”

Aquaman (James Wan, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.

It has been just over a year since the folks at DC Comics and Warner Bros. released the dismal Justice League, and I have already forgotten its entire plot. That’s (mildly) unfortunate, since some of the story is referenced in the latest DC-verse feature-length episode, Aquaman. I vaguely remember something about Steppenwolf – neither the bandnor the theater company, but an extraterrestrial supervillain – and the potential destruction of our entire world (standard stakes for these kinds of films), all of it leading to the formation of a ragtag group of “metahumans” (i.e., people with powers) to defeat the threat. Given the elliptical approach to backstory in this new entry in the series, it took me a long time to figure out what I didn’t know because I had no memory of it or because I had yet to be given the information. Ultimately, it mattered little, for nonsensical though Aquaman may be, it’s also good fun, filled with charismatic performances and lovely digital imagery. Check your brain at the door, and you should mostly enjoy its 143 minutes.

James Wan began his directorial career with horror films like SawInsidious and The Conjuring. In 2015, he made Furious 7, entering even bigger box-office territory, and now here he is with Aquamanjoining yet another mega-franchise. For comic fans, this amphibian superhero has gone through many metamorphoses since his creation in 1941 (as recently detailed by NPR’s Glen Weldon), always a bridesmaid, never really a bride. That changes with this film, where he is given the star treatment and incarnated by the hulking and engaging Jason Momoa (Braven), an actor more than up to the task of filling the screen, in terms of both physicality and charm. As someone without a deep background in the character’s past incarnations, I have nothing to contribute to the discussion on the merits of the current iteration vs. his past self. Let’s just stick, then, to what we have now.

Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman in AQUAMAN ©Warner Bros.

In a brief prologue, we learn how young Arthur (now there’s a name for the once and future king of the sea) was born to a human father and an Atlantean (i.e., from the underwater city of Atlantis) mother. Named Atlanna, in case we forget her origins, and played by Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased) – also from down under – she soon must flee after goons from the depths come a-looking for her, since it appears she skipped out on an arranged marriage. Exit Atlanna, then, leaving father Tom (Temuera Morrison, Once Were Warriors) bereft and son Arthur a lonely orphan. Fear not for the little guy, however, as he will very soon grow into big Momoa, with rippling muscles, impressive tattoos, and one hell of a wisecracking attitude.

In fact, we leap so quickly into the present, landing squarely in the middle of a submarine heist foiled by the adult Arthur, now Aquaman, that I became convinced I must have missed a scene, or maybe two (or really should have rewatched Justice League beforehand). It’s a rushed way to introduce our guy, but I suppose Wan wanted to start the mayhem as soon as possible, formative character beats be damned. What bothered me more in this opening, though, was the introduction of a nemesis for Aquaman who exists outside the main conflict that will soon erupt. He is Manta (soon to become “Black Manta”) – played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Cadillac on Netflix’s The Get Down) – and his real purpose seems to be to lay the groundwork for a future sequel. That’s how these things go.

Amber Heard in AQUAMAN ©Warner Bros.

The primary plot, however, follows Arthur as he is dragged down to Atlantis to challenge the heir apparent – his half-brother Orm (Wan stalwart Patrick Wilson), born after Atlanna’s return – and stop the armies of the oceans from waging war against the land-dwellers for their crimes against the planet (which, actually, would be a just battle, would it not?). Orm’s bride-to-be, Mera (Amber Heard, London Fields), and vizier, Vulko (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) are the ones who bring the reluctant Arthur into the fray, afraid of Orm’s intentions. Believing that the Atlanteans killed his mother after discovering she had borne a half-human son, Arthur wants nothing to do with solving the politics of the place, but Orm doesn’t know this, and takes his brother’s arrival as the challenge that Mera and Vulko intend it to be, forcing Arthur’s hand. Ah, families … gotta love ’em.

Along the way, we catch glimpses, in flashback, of Vulko’s secret training of Arthur through the years, filling in some of the missing gaps of earlier, and also learn the entire history of why Atlantis sank and how its residents can breathe underwater. The world-building is filled with intricate details that coalesce into profound nothingness, but since the CGI is gorgeous and the action fast-paced, how much do we care? Sure, the mythology here is dumb, but such boilerplate comic fare is no cinematic crime if done with gusto. Just stick your head in the water, pretend that the expositional voiceover and corny dialogue are just what you needed, and Aquaman will do what blockbusters are meant to do, which is to leave you wanting to see the next movie … I mean, to entertain.

Jason Momoa in AQUAMAN ©Warner Bros.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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