Six films into the DC extended universe, “Aquaman” arrives as something of a head-scratcher. The movie is just good enough to entertain, but also bad enough that this is far from a must-see.
“Aquaman” comes after a tumultuous series of films that includes box office successes “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League.” While these films make a lot of money, they are certainly not critical successes. In fact, these films have received the kind of notices that make “Wonder Woman” seem accidental. “Aquaman” is certainly better than “Suicide Squad,” but he is no Diana Prince.
One of the challenges going into the newest film is the fact that Aquaman is just plain silly. He always was. How do you translate this character who lives under the sea and hangs out with fish into something heroic and edgy?
Apparently, you don’t.
Picking up sometime after the events of “Justice League,” this is the story of Arthur “Aquaman” Curry. It is only partly an origin story, really, since we’ve already seen him in action. Arthur grew up on an island, raised by his land-dwelling father (Temuera Morrison). His mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), washed ashore while fleeing from an arranged marriage. But shortly after Arthur’s birth, she returned to her water world in order to protect her son and the man she loved.
The set up to Arthur’s introduction is perfectly ordinary. It doesn’t try to be anything new or different, and it doesn’t really need to be. Although watching Nicole Kidman wield a trident and fight off bad guys is a fun side note. That the bad guys look like a cross between a Halo Master Chief and the Power Rangers is an interesting aesthetic choice.
Unlike many heroes who eventually learn some truth about their past, Arthur has always known who he is. And he has always known he isn’t welcome in his mother’s world. Instead, he uses his abilities to act as a reluctant mercenary-type, protecting seafarers from pirates, and trying to ignore his superhero status as a member of Batman’s posse.
Jason Momoa does a serviceable job as the gruff guy who doesn’t want to be bothered. He is a little less convincing in scenes with his father, where he is supposed to have a soft spot for the old man’s undying devotion to Atlanna. And he is even less convincing when Mera (Amber Heard) shows up and begs him to come and fight for the throne of Atlantis against his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson).
Momoa and Heard are awkward onscreen together. It is almost impressive that they managed to find the one actress in the world with whom Momoa has zero chemistry. It’s hard to say who is more at fault for this uncomfortable pairing, but even when they aren’t on screen together, Heard never seems fully committed to her role. But that’s also largely because it is not entirely clear what her role is supposed to be. Mera acts as a bridge between Arthur’s surface-level existence and the ocean nation that is his birthright. Yet in the process of creating that bridge, the writers don’t give her much in the way of characterization.
The same can, unfortunately, be said for Patrick Wilson’s King Orm, too. Wilson is one of those actors that Hollywood can’t seem to figure out. He’s too nice to play the villain, but far too talented to be relegated only to sweet, heroic types. In the case of “Aquaman,” his villainous side might have been easier to accept if King Orm was a more rounded character. Instead, he is written like any standard Super Villain archetype. Orm is mad about climate change, so he wants to take over the seven seas and destroy the land-dwellers to protect the oceans. His plot plays out like a less compelling version of the plan enacted by Thanos.
There is also a distracting and useless subplot involving a character known as Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). His introduction is incidental, and his habit of showing up at random has little to do with the film he is in and more to do with the sequel he will probably be in later. This is an unfortunate choice since Manta has a lot of potential as a villain, and Abdul-Mateen is enjoyable. Perhaps he will be better served in the next installment.
The film’s biggest issue is the script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall. From bad dialogue to mediocre motivations, to a sequence straight out of “The Little Mermaid,” this screenplay felt like a Frankenstein’s Monster of plots and character studies.
“Aquaman” is not all bad. It is entertaining in its own way. James Wan was probably the best choice to direct this wacky tale. Up until now, he has spent his career building “The Conjuring” and “Saw” into horror franchises. He learned in his early years how to craft crowd-pleasing imagery, even with unusual premises. “Insidious” is a prime example. This is, of course, not a horror film. But Wan uses some of the methods that have worked in his previous work to draw the audience into the strange and unusual.
The visual effects, though, are odd and often poorly designed. Creating an underwater world is a huge challenge. But between the VFX and the production design, the ubiquitous comparisons to a Lisa Frank poster are quite apt. Although, at one point, Mera sports a pink jellyfish gown that is so ridiculously whimsical that it is actually very fun.
And for another bit of fun, Dolph Lundgren and Michael Beach occupy small roles that continue to renew interest in both of their careers. And if you listen closely, you might also catch the voices of John Rhys-Davies and Julie Andrews.
Because it is entertaining, “Aquaman” can rest comfortably as the second best film in the DCEU. Considering the bar set by Patty Jenkins and “Wonder Woman,” that is not a bad place to be. But also considering the bar set by Zack Snyder and the rest of the Justice League, second place isn’t really that hard to achieve.