Five years in, DC Comics’ Film Universe is in desperate need of a hero.
With only last year’s Wonder Woman living up to expectations, Marvel’s rival is looking beyond the marquee names of Batman and Superman to muster up some momentum. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, the sarcastic rebel of last year’s Justice League, is hoping to do just that in his first solo outing.
Directed by horror film maker James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), Aquaman follows Arthur Curry (Momoa), the son of a human father and an Atlantean Queen mother. Reluctant to embrace his Atlantean heritage after the disappearance of his mother, Arthur is convinced to come to Atlantis when Princess Mera (Amber Heard) informs him that his half brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) plans to rise up and make the surface world pay for its crimes against the ocean. With the fate of the world at stake, Arthur must learn what it truly means to be a king.
After the sombre slogs of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, it’s refreshing to see a hero that doesn’t take himself so seriously.
From his action packed, slo-mo heavy introduction aboard a submarine, it’s clear that entertainment is the main priority instead of universe building. Drawn reluctantly into an adventure that takes him from the Sahara to Sicily (and, of course, under the sea), Momoa and Heard leap their way from one action sequence to another, stopping only to make quips that either sink or swim (there’s a running Pinocchio gag that’s baffling).
It’s tempting to dismiss this high concept chaos as just another bad superhero movie, but amid the ocean of CGI and a patchy script there’s a lot of fun to be had.
First of all, the film is fairly self-contained, with only scant references to previous adventures. At a time when interconnected movie universes are all the rage, it’s refreshing to go on an adventure that doesn’t require watching multiple films in preparation. There’s also a relaxed feel to the affair, a sense that none of this is meant to be taken seriously.
With this mindset, it’s easier to sit back and enjoy the ride, glossing over redundant side-plots like secondary villain Black Mantis (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and appreciate the finer moments, such as a stunning sequence where Arthur fights off beasties with a flare.
The fun is also helped by a likeable cast. While she spends much of the film aiding Momoa, Heard is an interesting character in her own right and far from the bland damsel in distress commonly found in blockbusters. Saving her co-star more than once, she provides an interesting midway point between the action above and below the surface. She enjoys a mischievous chemistry with Momoa, bantering back and forth as the pair begrudgingly become allies.
As for Aquaman himself, there’s a movie star quality to Momoa that makes him endlessly charming. Portraying Arthur as a bit of a rogue, more interested in drinking and fighting than becoming a king, makes what is traditionally quite an unusual character seem more relatable.
Beneath the waves, a number of recognisable faces show up for melodramatic showdowns. Patrick Wilson is slightly stiff as Orn but provides enough diabolical moments to make the effect-packed finale worth sticking around for, while Dolph Lundgren looks convincing as bearded sea king Merius, Orm’s ally and Mera’s father.
On the land, there’s a surprisingly touching prologue involving Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison as Arthur’s parents, providing a moment of sentiment before the action truly kicks off.
Aquaman may not be as accomplished as DC colleague Wonder Woman, but what it occasionally lacks in coherence it makes up for in ambition. This is a film that remembers blockbusters are meant to be fun, and anyone fed up with the seriousness of modern superhero movies will have a blast.