How does one make a movie about a character as perpetually mocked as DC Comics superhero Aquaman?
How does one make a movie about a character as perpetually mocked as DC Comics superhero Aquaman? While some comic book movies have the unenviable task of translating a property that works on the page to the big screen, Aquaman is a franchise that barely works on paper. In the funny pages, Arthur Curry is a milquetoast, half-human, half-Atlantean who can telepathically communicate with fish. He is, to most mainstream audience members, the set-up for any number of unoriginal jokes, not the kind of figure upon which a multi-million dollar blockbuster should be fixated.
Then how did James Wan’s Aquaman adaptation end up so damn enjoyable? Rather than take an apologist’s tack and sand down the oddball edges of Aquaman’s mythology or focus on making the proceedings more realistic, Wan and his collaborators double down on the premise’s inherent absurdity, wringing maximum cheese from the source material. This is, above all else, a terminally goofy picture possessing little to no shame, and is all the better for it. To fully grasp Wan’s approach, one need look no further than Jason Momoa’s casting in the lead role.
This is a personnel decision that predates the Saw and Furious 7 helmer’s involvement, but other directors might have developed a specific characterization for the DCEU Arthur now that he finally has his own film to stretch out in, after a cameo in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and a cup of coffee supporting role in Justice League. Various comic book interpretations have tried to make Arthur more compelling than the “Superfriends” punchline many think of him as, with untold permutations throwing different TV tropes at the wall and hoping one sticks. This Arthur, however, isn’t merely another iteration of “Taking a Course in Badass.” Instead, this Arthur is just Jason Momoa, but cranked to 11. Like a professional wrestling gimmick, Aquaman succeeds by being a supersized extrapolation of his real life counterpart’s charisma and personality. Finally, we get a superhero with a chain wallet, a boundless thirst for beer and the ability to unironically shout adjectives with aplomb.
In a different kind of modern superhero film, his performance might scan as grating, given its relative one note-ness, but Aquaman is a throwback, a euphoric exaltation of genre spectacle that doesn’t see being kinda dumb as an obstacle to moving viewers. It’s a popcorn flick in the best sense of the term, and given DC’s spotty record with live action films in recent years, this certified base hit feels like a homerun. But anyone who needs more from their blockbusters, those who would prefer prescient social commentary or stirring character drama, Aquaman is littered with enough nourishing morsels of substance.
There’s a strangely emotional sequence early in the film between Aquaman’s soon-to-be archenemy Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Manta’s father (Michael Beach) that feels like it was ripped out of a deeper film about a lineage of black men who’ve served their country and the heritage that bonds them even in death. Arthur’s placement as the scion of dueling cultures will ring true for second and third generation viewers looking for a diverse reflection of their family lives in their popcorn entertainment.
The entire film is book-ended by a tale-of-two-worlds storybook romance between Arthur’s star-crossed parents, his lighthouse keeper father (Temuera Morrison) and his Atlantean queen mom (Nicole Kidman) that possesses all the eye watering majesty of a Disney classic.
All of those fleeting portions of meaning, however, are hidden throughout like a cinephile’s scavenger hunt. The rest of the movie is filled with objectively bad dialogue, a video game’s plot and some questionable environmental politics. But this is a movie that features an octopus beating ceremonial drums before ritual combat for the throne of Atlantis. This is a movie whose entire third act feels like 10 Lord of the Rings movies happening all at once, underwater, complete with an army of crab people defending the sovereignty of their realm. It is a movie that sees fit to let Dolph Lundgren play a scheming undersea King right out of a Shakespeare play, complete with more screen time than he had in Creed II. It’s a movie that doesn’t give a shit that its main character is named “Aquaman,” or that his evil half-brother insists on being called “Ocean Master.”
Above all else, it’s a movie that’s having fun and encourages you to go along with said fun. The action is some of the cleanest and most engrossing of the last few years, with immersive special effects work, a hilariously schizophrenic score and set pieces that each top the one preceding it. Somehow, Warner Bros produced an Aquaman movie wilder and more epic than the one Vinnie Chase starred in on “Entourage,” and they didn’t even need to get James Cameron to do it.