Review: DC's 'Aquaman' is Utterly Preposterous But Insanely Watchable
by Adam Frazier
December 20, 2018
Created by Paul Norris & Mort Weisinger, Aquaman debuted in 1941's More Fun Comics #73. In his Golden Age appearances, Aquaman is described as a human being who lives and thrives under the water and can speak with sea creatures "in their own language." During the late '50s and 60s, Aquaman was established as a founding member of the Justice League and was a mainstay on Hanna Barbera’s Super Friends, which ran from 1973 to 1986. In the '90s, the wholesome seahorse-riding superhero was re-imagined as the brooding King of Atlantis. Fast-forward to 2011 and The New 52, DC's relaunch of their entire superhero line, and Geoff Johns' cutting-edge revival of the character, which serves as the basis for Aquaman, the third live-action movie featuring the character, following Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.
Directed by James Wan (of Furious 7, Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring series previously), the movie stars Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, a half-Atlantean "metahuman" who possesses superhuman strength and can manipulate the tides, telepathically communicate with marine life, and swim at supersonic speeds. In the film's prologue, we learn that Arthur is the son of a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones) and Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) of Atlantis. Atlanna is forced to return to the underwater realm, leaving her young son and his heartbroken father behind. In her absence, Arthur is trained by her trusted advisor, Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), and becomes a skilled warrior, but is ultimately rejected by the Atlanteans for being a half-breed.
Jump to present day, one year after the events of Justice League and Steppenwolf's invasion (LOL). Arthur confronts a group of high-seas pirates led by Jesse Kane (Michael Beach) attempting to hijack a Russian nuclear submarine. Kane dies during the confrontation while his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) vows revenge against the half-Atlantean. As it turns out, David – the villain Black Manta – was hired by King Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur's half-brother and ruler of Atlantis, who wanted to stage a submarine attack as a pretext for declaring war on the surface-dwellers. Now the true heir to the throne must stop Orm before the self-proclaimed Ocean Master conquers the surface world as retribution for mankind's pollution of the planet. Joining Curry on his quest are Vulko and Princess Mera (Amber Heard), another fierce Atlantean warrior betrothed to King Orm.
With a screenplay written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall (from a story by Geoff Johns & James Wan and Will Beall), Aquaman is equal parts Masters of the Universe (1987), Batman Forever (1995), and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). It's an utterly preposterous movie with atrocious dialogue that's still insanely watchable thanks in large part to Wan's kinetic action set pieces and Jason Momoa's charismatic performance. As a matter of fact, all of the films above are represented within the cast. In addition to the aforementioned love affair between Batman Forever's Chase Meridian (Kidman) and Attack of the Clones' Jango Fett (Morrison), He-Man himself, Dolph Lundgren, appears as Mera's father, King Nereus. Throw in Spider-Man's Green Goblin (Dafoe) and Watchmen's Nite-Owl (Wilson), and Aquaman is a potpourri of the last 30 years of fantasy/comic book cinema, for better or worse.
Aquaman isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's fun, which is more than I can say for the majority of DC's recent output. It's the second-best DC Extended Universe movie behind Patty Jenkins' exceptional Wonder Woman, but that isn't saying much. I'd rather have a cystoscopy than revisit BVS, Suicide Squad, or Justice League again. One thing's for sure though, Aquaman is a great looking movie. Production designer Bill Brzeski (Iron Man 3, Furious 7), costume designer Kym Barrett (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas), and visual effects supervisor Kelvin Mcilwain (Furious 7) deserve recognition for their incredible work in breathing life into James Wan’s vision and the iconic imagery of Aquaman artists and illustrators like Paul Norris, Nick Cardy, and Ramona Fradon. There's a lot of eye candy in Wan's film – and not just Momoa. From the kick-ass costumes of Atlanna, King Orm, and Black Manta to gnarly creatures like the Brine King (voiced by John Rhys-Davies) and the underwater sea monster Karathen (voiced by Julie Andrews), there's plenty of dazzling designs for sci-fi fans to appreciate.
Despite a script that's heavy on exposition and melodrama, there are some solid performances to be found in Wan's movie. Kidman, Momoa, and Wilson are great, even when they're forced to deliver cringe-worthy dialogue and flat one-liners. Aside from a weak script, Aquaman suffers from some pacing issues that threaten to sink the 143-minute movie. It's reminiscent of 2012's John Carter, where most of the film's overblown runtime is dedicated to establishing the world all the characters live in, instead of exploring the characters themselves. It's the action sequences, lensed by cinematographer Don Burgess (of Source Code, The Muppets, Allied, Wonder), that keep the film afloat; the final 30 minutes are straight-up bonkers – with an epic underwater war featuring crab monsters, fish-men, and Atlantean warriors riding giant seahorses and great white sharks.
Another weird aspect of the movie is its score, composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams (who also scored Wonder Woman). Aquaman's score is like ten different soundtracks in one, creating an overall disjointed tone that adds to the film's pacing issues. Arthur has these big rock-laden orchestral themes, while Atlantis has an '80s synth vibe, ala Stranger Things. There are comedic themes as well, the kinds you'd hear in Happy Madison productions like Grown Ups, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Zookeeper – all of which Gregson-Williams scored. If that wasn't enough, there's an offensive if not blasphemous cover of Toto's "Africa" by Pitbull and Rhea that sounds like Justice League looks. Yeah, it's that bad.
All things considered, James Wan's Aquaman is another step in the right direction for Warner Bros and DC Entertainment. It's silly and wildly uneven, but if you're into cheesy blockbusters, you're going to love it. With its heavy-handed scripting and exotic other-worldly visuals, I have to imagine Aquaman is George Lucas' favorite film of 2018. He's probably watching it right now in his home theater – swaddled in a plaid, denim Snuggie – enjoying a Coca-Cola Classic and a Hershey's Bar and grinning ear-to-ear as a shirtless Momoa forces his way into a pirate-packed submarine and delivers the line, "Permission to come aboard?" while winking at the camera. Actually, now that I think about it, I'm grinning too.
Adam's Rating: 3 out of 5
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