It’s safe to say that DC has had trouble establishing itself in the movies with the same success as its chief competitor Marvel. While DC certainly has a dedicated fanbase, their productions, with the notable exception of Wonder Woman, have failed to win over critics and make a lasting impact on a crowded pop culture landscape. After Justice League underwhelmed audiences and underperformed at the box office, the future of DC’s interconnected cinematic universe (often referred to as the DC Extended Universe or DCEU) was in question. For the first film from the DC brand since Justice League, the comics giant turns to Furious 7 director James Wan to guide their ship with Aquaman, which sees star Jason Momoa reprising his role as one of the few standouts in DC’s team-up film. It’s hard to say that Aquaman is a good movie as it’s overstuffed, overlong, and often entirely nonsensical. However, it’s never boring as it’s a seemingly endless spectacle that has Wan embracing the inherent goofiness of its concept from start to finish, which in and of itself is a kind of remarkable feat considering the film’s lengthy running time.
The plot of Aquaman is one that’s insanely overstuffed with comic book mythology and fractured familial relationships. I’m going to try my best to give a brief, spoiler-free summary of the plot within the screenplay credited to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall (from a story by Wan, Beall, and Geoff Johns). Our hero, Aquaman (Momoa), aka Arthur Curry, is the son of a human lighthouse keeper Tom (Temura Morrison) and Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) of Atlantis. The love of Arthur’s parents was forbidden and Atlanna was forced to return to the sea while her son was very young. Her return led her to being executed for her betrayal to the throne of Atlantis. It’s a wet, wild complicated world under the sea.
In the years since, Aquaman has become a kind of mythical antihero thanks to his exploits with the Justice League. Below the surface of the ocean, though, something evil is brewing. Arthur’s half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to wage war with the surface of the Earth. In order to wage war, Orm needs the approval of four out of the seven kingdoms of Atlantis. Only then can he become the Ocean Master. The Atlantean king pulls this off by hiring the pirate David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to hijack a submarine and attack a meeting between Orm and King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), another aquatic monarch. Fearing Orm’s destructive plans, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) travels to the surface to recruit Arthur Curry to join the fight, something he’s quite reluctant to do despite the fact that his lineage means he’s the rightful King of Atlantis. Eventually, Arthur joins the fight after Mera and Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who trained Arthur as a child and currently serves under Orm, inform the hero as to the existence of the long lost trident of King Atlan, the first King of Atlantis, which contains immense power that can defeat Orm and prevent a war between worlds.
As you might be able to tell by that “brief” plot synopsis, there’s a lot going on in Aquaman. It’s a very busy film, and that kind of works in the film’s favor because there’s always some form of insane nonsense on the screen to keep you bewildered and entertained so you don’t really have the time or energy to focus on its more underwhelming aspects. That insanity also helps the VFX work because realism isn’t an option. A lot of Aquaman makes absolutely no sense but it doesn’t matter since the film never attempts to make any sense of its nonsense, just moving along from one absolutely insane sequence to the next. The fact that Aquaman isn’t a lengthy piece of grim nihilism goes a long way in making it easy to overlook the film’s many shortcomings.
The visuals are just as overstuffed as the plot. Wan’s underwater locations are brimming with neon-colored cityscapes and all sorts of aquatic creatures, real and mythical. Despite all of this bloat – and there’s a whole lot of bloat – the film comes across as a bit of breezy fun because Wan truly loves the ludicrous.
Also helping the film coast along despite its numerous issues is the charisma of Jason Momoa. He’s an actor who, like his director, embraces the lunacy of the film. He’s a towering, muscle-bound lead that has just enough sense of what kind of movie he’s in. That, however, doesn’t always work for Momoa’s costars. Patrick Wilson hams it up as the villain, and it’s hard not to laugh whenever anyone says the phrase “Ocean Master” in his presence. The great Willem Dafoe is trapped in a kind of thankless mentor role, often only present to help get a bit of expository dialogue out of the way.
Sadly, Amber Heard and her turn as Mera fails to really connect, and big part of that is just how indifferent the script for Aquaman is towards its women characters – of which there are only two. The romance between Arthur and Mera feels as forced as the arraigned marriages the two female characters are trapped in at different points in the story. Heard is often tasked with standing in front of the camera dripping wet in a skin-tight green one-piece, and her character is rarely given any chance to display some of the same self-awareness as the film’s eponymous hero.
As he displayed in Furious 7, Wan has a knack for balancing the comically absurd with big action set pieces. That’s not to say that all of the film’s action works. During one early battle between Arthur and Orm, the camera swirls around the action, creating a dizzying effect on the audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if this sequence winds up giving people in IMAX theaters a bit of motion sickness. There are other moments where the action delivers the goods, completely abandoning physics and plausibility in order to just run wild. Of course, there are moments when the action is just so wildly absurd that you can’t help but just stare at the screen in awe of Wan’s audacity, such as one battle between Aquaman and the villainous Black Manta, who despite being accurate to the comics looks just like Paulie’s robot from Rocky IV. Like much of the film, Aquaman concludes with a crazed, overstuffed finale but it feels completely in line with everything that came before. It doesn’t feel as grating as so many bombastic blockbuster finales because it retains the tone struck throughout.
Sitting through Aquaman I had that feeling that I was watching a bad movie, but by the time the end credits rolled (with a mid-credits stinger in case you were wondering) I had to accept the fact that I was consistently entertained and never bored by James Wan’s crazy blockbuster. It’s a chaotic mess of a film. There’s a lot of fat that could’ve been trimmed. By shunning the dour tone that dominated the first few DCEU films, Aquaman is able to overcome its numerous flaws because it’s so bizarrely and brazenly entertaining. It’s able to capture the essence of why Marvel has become such a powerful force in pop entertainment – it’s fun! – without feeling like an imitation. It’s completely unburdened by trying to connect itself to other franchises in the series, which proves incredibly liberating and makes the more bloated elements of the plot not feel tedious. This is a film where nothing really should work and yet it does because its star and director (but possibly not the rest of the cast) understand just how absurd and insane the whole thing is – and it’s astonishingly absurd and insane.
Aquaman may not be a good movie in the traditional sense, but it miraculously works because director James Wan embraces the absurdity and insanity of its concept, delivering something bewildering yet wildly entertaining.