The latest addition to the DCEU, James Wan’s 2018 film takes place after the events of Justice League and tells the story of how Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), born to a human lighthouse keeper and Atlantis’ runaway Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), truly becomes Aquaman, having to team up with Princess Mera (Amber Heard) and retrieve the lost trident of Atlan in order to gain control of the seas and stop his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) from waging war on the surface world.
There’s probably a more sophisticated way of writing the film’s synopsis but those plot elements above are indeed the key elements of the story, silly as I may make it sound. But there isn’t really much else to be found within this film (apart from it’s visual spectacle, which I’ll get to later) and in a similar vein to Justice League, this film is an overall average attempt to bring us the Aquaman origin story that has been previously, confusingly, skipped over; his journey isn’t told in any kind of revolutionary manner and, though it eventually settles into cohesion, the early setting up of the key story elements is often muddled, messy and confusing. The script is inherently flawed as it is burdened with cheesy, eye roll inducing dialogue and the film has trouble with moving the plot along properly, often having to rely on exposition and narrative spoonfeeding in order to move things along.
The strange decision to skip over the DC heroes’ origin stories and move straight on to teaming them up in Batman vs. Superman/Justice League has proved to be detrimental to this extended universe because it’s only now that we’re finally being given their full backstories (when they should have come BEFORE the team-up) but while Wonder Woman did very well in educating us about just who Diana was, where she came from and what she can do, Aquaman flounders (ha!) in presenting a clear origin story because we don’t get a clear enough picture of just how Arthur discovered his powers, just how he met Mera and Vulko (Willem Dafoe) – we’re just told that they know each other somehow – and all in all, to an Aquaman novice like me, we don’t get to know Arthur as well as we should have and as an origin story, it’s very messy and up-in-the-air.
Arthur even says “So we do things in a different order. S–t happens.” Could this be the DCEU’s mission statement?
But the primary positive factor of Aquaman is its visuals and sense of sheer spectacle and while the CGI isn’t exactly flawless, we are treated to several standout scenes that entertain and give audiences some bang for their buck. The best moments of the film are found in the underwater-set scenes and in particular, the gladitorial match between Arthur and Orm as well as the huge final showdown and the reveal of the gargantuan Karathen (voiced by JULIE ANDREWS of all people!) are visually spectacular and a big action setpiece set in Sicily, using a very effective long take, provides the biggest entertainment jolt of the film. The latter benefits greatly from Yahya Abdul Mateen’s brilliantly designed and very menacing Black Manta and overall, it’s truly in the second half where we can settle in and enjoy Aquaman as a decent piece of cinema entertainment, taking a break from the troublesome world building and moving on to a good globetrotting adventure for Arthur and Mera.
Taking up the pivotal role of Arthur Curry/Aquaman, Jason Momoa seems to be having plenty of fun; he’s definitely got the look, he radiates strength, power and charisma throughout, and he does alright with both the comedy and the emotional drama. His character has a decent enough arc and at least he gets to do more than he did in Justice League – where all he did was punch people, jump through the air and go “Yeah!” or “My man!”. Although he does plenty of that in this film as well!
Alongside, with her aquakinetic powers and one inappropriately revealing outfit, Amber Heard gets to kick butt as Princess Mera but she is ill-served by the script as she is lumbered with the
sealion’s share of terrible, cheesy, trailer worthy, expositional dialogue and her character isn’t properly fleshed out – she was introduced in a rush during Justice League and it’s been downhill from there. Heard’s performance is regrettably quite weak overall, the chemistry between her and Momoa doesn’t exactly sizzle and when they are forced to deliver the obligatory banter, it goes down like a lead balloon. They even have a sappy “getting to know you” romantic montage where – surprise, surprise – she comes to appreciate the surface world that she had previously disparaged. Jeez.
Elsewhere, Willem Dafoe is likeable enough as Arthur’s wise mentor Vulko, Patrick Wilson is serviceable as Orm/Ocean Master (he has some credible villain motivation – nothing too compelling, just the usual bad guy warmongering stuff), Temuera Morrison is an affable father figure, and Nicole Kidman is essentially there to collect the cheque as she is alright, though not at all memorable, as Queen Atlanna.
Rupert Gregson-Williams’ bombastic score succeeds in bringing a sense of drama, adventure and spectacle and as for James Wan’s direction, it’s alright as he admirably brings this enormous, expansive world to the big screen with gusto and ablomb but the narrative “time-hopping” is slightly mishandled and in terms of pacing, Aquaman often feels too slow and laborious, making it seem longer than it needed to be.
And just FYI, there’s no post credits scene.