REVIEW – DC Universe Looks for Successful Re-Hydration in Splashy, Cheesy “Aquaman”

by Joe Hammerschmidt

Last year, DC Comics’ live-action universe finally delivered on some of its long-standing promises, expanding on more than its awkward interpretations of their canon’s two leading figureheads, and recovering from what appeared the death knell for the franchise long considered an MCU copycat. Justice League brazenly righted the wrongs left behind by Dawn of Justice, albeit barely, while building on the standalone momentum of Wonder Woman. Now, the anticipation for the next solo film seems to have paid off, resting high on the laurels of one capable director, and one charismatic actor with equal parts brain and brawn. Aquaman has arrived, and so has Jason Momoa in the title role, and if this doesn’t expand his career footprint, I don’t know what will.

In the instant aftermath of League, Arthur Curry (the beefy Momoa) has settled into a tidy role as an almost nefarious vigilante preventing major crimes occurring in the ocean. A half-breed, born of Thomas (Temeura Morrison), a human lighthouse keeper, and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the mysterious Queen of Atlantis, Curry is somewhat a free agent having kept close to shore. That is, until Mera (Amber Heard), daughter to the current ruling king, and forcibly betrothed to Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), summons him back to the sea as a precursory attempt to avoid an all-out oceanic war, the earliest signs symbolized by absolute destruction wiping up on multiple beaches around the world.

Director James Wan flexes his filmmaking muscles, having escaped the Conjuring-verse for a brief reprieve to have a little bit of fun mixing genres, and attempting to look past the usual comic book movie, with one small caveat. It takes the first hour or so for the action to really start moving, and this film is nearly 2.5 hours, so patience is certainly appreciated while Arthur is hunting for a new trident powerful enough to unite kingdoms torn by strife. As much as it is a fractured origin story, it’s also a worthwhile road trip flick by the one-hour mark, and Wan’s all too keen on somehow swinging a total conniption fit of campy sci-fi that just works. Again, we need a little time to reach that point, but yes. It works, to every possible advantage.

As it is a CG-driven comic book film, yes, I did have my doubts over whether the non-human visuals would complement or compromise. A lot of the time, it’s on both terms, where the water seems unrealistic and we’re taken out of the film very briefly, or when the undersea kingdom seems too real and we’re deeply invested in sequences of possible bloodshed, or minimally speaking, some mild bruising for domesticated dolphins and the like. It helps to keep an open mind, Wan’s creating a fantasy-driven sci-fi flick equally rooted in deliberate cheesiness from the 70s, like we’re seeing, for a crude example, Galaxia or Starcrash, but mostly set in the ocean and with a $200 million budget backing behind it. That idea couldn’t work as well for The MEG as Wan makes it here. Maybe a more accessible story base, more charismatic casting? That side of it, I’ll leave to the viewer to decide for themselves.

But both above are endearing hallmarks for Aquaman, much like Wan’s ambitious commitment. He was trusted with the project, and he got the job done, and more importantly he could trust Momoa, still a self-starter in his career after introducing the character last year in League, and crafting what I had heard was a real barn-burning performance in Braven. Here, he’s on a brand-new level, not just on grace and style, but also with range and effectiveness. He buries himself so deep into the fins of Arthur Curry, it’s literally impossible to imagine anyone else having portrayed the role with such legitimacy, mostly because he is among the first in live action to do so. Many an animated portrayal have risen and fallen into the back of many viewer’s minds, the multiple self-aware parodies on Robot Chicken a standout exception.

Momoa is clearly setting the standard for where the character can go in the future, likely in all media for all time, carrying both an intellectual, humorous side, and that of a muscular action hero, ala Dolph Lundgren, the film’s most villainous figure, an ally to the conflicted Orm, whom Wilson slides into ever so gleefully. Of course, he and Wan are already good friends going as far back as Insidious, and I’ve personally loved Wilson going back to Phantom of the Opera, so of course, I was excited to see him tackle on a villain role that suits his strengths. While he may be a victim of the stretched-out plot, not completely a memorable figure as much as his half-brother, he grew as an actor by a certain amount, which had to have been enough for me.

Curry and Mera do make a strong pairing, Heard bringing in together plenty of the film’s buzzier zingers, yet I felt way more chemistry between the mermaid and the lighthouse keeper. Of course, there’s not much of neither Mr. Morrison or Mrs. Kidman to go around, yet the introduction that brings them together, their first meeting, and the time they spent raising Arthur? A certain kind of cinematic sparks going alight, and one would be a fool not to sense that in the opening minutes while the young Curry developed his gifts, growing more in tune with the ocean. On that note, I would pine long for a spinoff film involving Willem Dafoe’s Nuidis Vulko, Curry’s mentor, almost like a camp counselor for the kid and to the Atlantean colonies. Between this and Van Gogh, Dafoe’s on a roll this month.

Wan’s directorial vision is beyond a spectacular feat, even if his story treatment skews off the mark. Granted, Will Beall (Gangster Squad), DC vet Geoff Johns, and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2) all add something unique to the table, but their own perception of the tale detracts away from what should a clear path that Wan sets. It’s a bit messy, a little tough to dissect, and a little long for the teeth, but it easily sets the stage for exactly what Aquaman should best represent moving forward, a large face who can finally play with the big boys, roll with the little punches, and slide into the humor jabs with a good nature. Had it been anyone else helming this effort, I’d have a much more difficult go of trying to look past the errors it sets up, but rest assured they’re only small road bumps on a journey roaming around the planet quickly but keeps its focus small with a methodical pace. Pending a second viewing that could allow me to see more of what had been thrown out there, the results still stand as equal parts efficient world building, campy sci-fi, and ingenious comic book adventure unafraid to leap off the page, leaving nothing to chance, and nothing valuable behind. It would help to double tie the trunks, just in case. (B+)

Aquaman opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language; 143 minutes.