Aquaman, the latest entry in the troubled DC comics universe, knows exactly what it is. It’s an over the top fantasy and adventure film full of wild locations, big action set pieces and comic book silliness. It’s a little light on depth (I could make a joke about the ocean there, but I won’t) but moves so quickly that it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of spectacle, if it’s at least spectacular, and Aquaman is.
Following on, sort of, from Justice League (you didn’t watch it, that’s fine) Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is avoiding his Atlantean heritage and rescuing sailors. However, the current king of the hyper-advanced underwater city of Atlantis wants to start a war with the surface for their polluting of the ocean. Arthur has a claim to the title but is uninterested. Meera (Amber Heard) manages to talk him into challenging for the throne, kicking off an adventure that takes him all over the world, and involves a lot of Tridents.
It’s all unabashedly silly. Aquaman was long the punchline of the comic book world, considered silly even among characters who wore their underwear on the outside to fight crime. Part of the problem was trying to force Aquaman into regular comic book stories (Oh, I wonder where the villains are hiding, Aquaman, who lives in the sea) and so the film doesn’t do that. It’s a space opera, with titles and kingdoms on the line, fleets of spaceships (they’re underwater, but they’re spaceships) and ritual duels. Rather than trying to ground the story, the film leans into the inherent silliness of giant magic underwater kingdoms. Early on, there’s a meeting between the villain and another king. The evil underwater people ride sharks, the less evil ones ride giant Seahorses. If you can get behind that idea, you’ll enjoy the film.
It helps that it is pretty. Every single colour on the wheel is used, sometimes every one of them at once. That’s not much of an exaggeration. It has a rich palette and loves showing the texture of everything in the shot. It also helps that we’re never more than a few minutes from a big action or fight scene. In that sense, it sticks to the rule of blockbusters (apparently, the rule is an action beat every 15 minutes) but they’re varied and well done. There’s clear framing, longer takes and the geography of more complex scenes is perfectly clear, accomplished with some spectacular CGI and some nice tricks. Even the full-on underwater fights and chases manage to keep the geography clear by giving the audience lots of visual points of reference.
This is not a film that is interested in the nebulous concept of ‘world building.’ Everything that we see or understand about the Atlanteans and the other kingdoms is purely for the purposes of the plot. It never slows down enough to, for instance, say how the underwater kingdoms have stayed hidden, simply that they are hidden, and they’re on their way to not being hidden. Honestly, the film never slows down enough to explain much of anything. It’s a testament to the cast that, even in the confines of a movie that rushes from one crazy event to the next, there are plenty of good character moments.
Patrick Wilson, as Aquaman’s brother, is a surprisingly nuanced villain, born of an arranged marriage and a disgraced mother. However, he can also maniacally declare himself the “Ocean Master” with complete sincerity. Yahya Abdul Mateen II, as the secondary villain and clear sequel hook ‘Black Manta,’ manages to sell his rage, grief and helplessness at the loss of his father while wearing a helmet that shoots lasers from his eyes. Even Dolph Lundgren (yes, Ivan Drago from Rocky 4) gets a couple of good scenes while commanding armies of narwhals and robot squids. In the midst of all the sea monsters and fight scenes, they also manage to squeeze in a sweet love story between Temura Morrison and Nicole Kidman as Aquaman’s parents. Amber Heard’s character is probably the weakest part, but that’s because she’s stuck as the competent one who makes the plot happen, and so isn’t given much of an arc, because she has to keep everything moving. No one else is going to do it.
The whole package is a fine example of what it sets out to be. James Wan, the director, broke into the blockbuster scene with an entry in the Fast and the Furious series. Similarly, those films are absurd, but they work due to the sincerity and skill of their execution. This is the same thing. It’s as realistic as a Star Wars film and plays it as straight as a Star Wars film. There’s no ironic distance from or shame of the material. And, somehow, it works.
Also, Willem Dafoe rides a seahorse in this movie, what more do you want?