Aquaman Is Not At All Washed Up
By Jordan Bosch
After nine years, Jason Momoa has returned to Atlantis.
If you’re not a comics reader you’re probably most familiar with Aquaman as a punchline.
The DC hero of the sea has often been mocked for what’s seen as a niche superpower, something very limited and tame. Which is ironic considering his oldest analogue, Poseidon, was regarded as one of the three most important of the Greek gods, the pantheon often cited as the model for the Justice League.
Having power over the seas is not a small thing, but still Aquaman’s unique domain poses a real challenge for a film adaptation. And how do you make that kind of character interesting? Where do you go for his story. Well the answer lies right in his name. Not Aquaman. Arthur.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is the son of Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of the underwater civilization of Atlantis, and Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), a human lighthouse keeper whom she fell in love with. Refusing to associate with Atlantis after his mother was executed for this, Arthur is nonetheless lured into this world when his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) declares war on the surface. In order to stop him and become the rightful king of Atlantis, Arthur must find and win an ancient Trident, aided in this quest by the Atlantean warrior Mera (Amber Heard).
Aquaman was directed by James Wan of Saw and The Conjuring fame, and it’s his second action movie after the seventh Fast and the Furious film.
And say what you will about those movies, he’s a very creative director and that’s especially on display here. A good seventy per cent takes place underwater where the physics are different, and so fight scenes, battle scenes, chase scenes all have to be filmed in a different way. And Wan manages to shoot them in a heightened yet believable style that creates something really unique.
Particularly he delights in and reminds us how liberating movement is underwater, when you’re not bound by gravity. The detail is exquisite at conveying that feasible aquatic feel, both in the films’ texture and in little things you might not think about, like how the actors’ hair is constantly agitated.
The Atlantean society is well-related, obviously taking heavy influence from the Greeks, but with a modern coating. One-on-one fights are also done with tridents, which are an unusual type of weapon, but one the movie does a great job accentuating and skillfully choreographing.
As to the scale, Wan and DC really took the playground of the ocean and exploited it for all it was worth -this is both DC’s most ambitious and its most successful in that ambition, being certainly their most beautiful looking film to date, substituting the gloominess and desaturated atmosphere Man of Steel and Justice League for a rich, colourful, and versatile visual landscape. We actually see Aquaman in his traditional outfit in this movie and it looks great on him. DC really believes in this fish-man movie or at least in going all out with the risk, because of a solid, admittedly predictable, but well-told story.
As I hinted at before the story of Aquaman here bears more than a passing resemblance to Arthurian lore, notably the Sword in the Stone legend. This is supported by the structure of the film which emphasizes his background, his destiny, and even his training for this occasion with a Merlin-like mentor played by Willem Dafoe, sequences that are quite nicely integrated if not from a script standpoint as from a visual one. And part of a reason this story works is because of that classic influence that comes with a natural gravitas when explored through a competent and new lens.
Another reason it works is because Jason Momoa is so likeable in the leading role.
He was one of the better parts of Justice League and proves with Aquaman he can carry a movie on his charming attitude, good looks, and physical prowess, as well as some unexpected dramatic chops. He and Amber Heard have really good chemistry, and a fun kind of cheesy banter reminiscent of Romancing the Stone or the Stephen Sommers Mummy. And for her part she’s really good at the physical stuff too, at times almost being a co-lead.
Dafoe is a worthy counsellor, Morrison is great as the blue-collar romantic, and Kidman is having quite the year between this,Destroyer and Boy Erased. Dolph Lundgren plays Mera’s father and is okay for what he’s given to work with.
Wilson isn’t terribly impressive though as an antagonist who could have been DC’s answer to Loki. However the real weakness of the cast is Black Manta. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is giving a worthy attempt, but the character is mostly out of place in this movie, someone to have a more personal grudge against Aquaman for understandable reasons, but who’s presence feels like just an attempt to shoehorn a prominent villain into the picture.
And yes, as was reported, Julie Andrews is in this movie, and when her character does appear it’s one of the most distinct roles in her long, illustrious career.
There’s some poor writing in Aquaman, more than a few moments of inorganically dumped exposition, and the film is longer than it needs to be; but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t earn at least some of that. DC may be finally starting to really explore its potential. They’ve made two good movies now, products of hiring very talented directors and stars, opened up their worlds and ditched that constrictive “dark tone”, and done the impossible: they’ve made Aquaman cool.