Jason Momoa charms in this special effects-laden superhero blockbuster.
Not since the screaming spider of Arachnophobia has there been something so ridiculous as a shark that roars. Then again, this is a film that also gives a bedazzled octopus a drum solo, so where does one draw the line? Welcome to Aquaman, a movie that chooses all the wrong places to play it safe, and all the weirdest ones to, well, be weird.
It's a shame, too, because DC had a good opportunity here to turn things around for its ill-fated Universe. The ingredients were solid: a charismatic and sexy leading man (Jason Momoa), an unconventional hero with an appealing no-fucks-given attitude and, best of all, a generous amount of distance between itself and the woeful Justice League that preceded it. Add to that the relegation of DC veteran director Zack Snyder to a producer credit and Aquaman was neatly positioned to carve out another potentially lucrative sub-franchise in the vein of Wonder Woman. Instead, it delivers another special effects-laden delirium whose plot is both convoluted and dull.
It's an origin story of sorts, albeit one set after Aquaman's formal introduction in Justice, with the film's opening scenes providing an engaging balance of history and action. We learn Aquaman (born Arthur) is the result of a star-crossed romance between lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and self-exiled Atlantean royal Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), whose semi-literal fish out of water routine offers the film both some amusing and tender moments (as well as a kick-arse fight scene from out of nowhere).
Arthur's burgeoning powers are seldom explored, however, and the occasional training or education flashbacks offer none of the excitement or moral dilemmas that are custom-built for superhero origin stories (Clarke Kent not beating up his bullies in Man of Steel but then saving a busload of kids, including the bullies, being a prime example of the device done properly). Aquaman's powers are extreme, and extensive, yet they're rarely explained. How is it, for example, that in addition to his aquatic properties he's essentially bullet-proof? Doubtless all answers lie in the comic books, but a movie can't rely so heavily on its source material that it obviates at least some screenplay hand-holding. The problem is, Aquaman chooses to do its exhaustive exposition not for the fun stuff like talking to fish, but for dry factional politics between its secondary characters (a near-identical mistake to that made by George Lucas in The Phantom Menace).
It also falls into the ridiculous trap of establishing a world full of aliens and monsters, then denying their very existence for the sake of artificial conflict. To wit, it makes absolutely no sense to have conservative TV pundits in the vein of Fox News panelists saying things like "Atlantis!? Please! It's a myth!" when they all live in a world that openly acknowledges the existence of Super Man, and Wonder Woman, and The Flash, and Cyborg, and Steppenwolf and a whole bunch of invading aliens (some of whom previously levelled several cities and tried to terraform the Earth). Given those realities, a lost city seems entirely plausible by comparison.
On the plus side, Momoa owns every scene he's in, assisted by a solid turn from Amber Heard in a role that's entirely warrior princess and zero damsel in distress. It's also comfortably the brightest and most colourful DC film to date, delivering visuals that wouldn't feel out of place in Blade Runner. Too often, though, director James Wan takes the focus away from Momoa and Heard, favouring instead either long-winded pontificating from the villain Orm (Patrick Wilson) or CGI-heavy action that never even comes close to looking real. It's an entertaining ride and a refreshing break from the Snyder-driven darkness/slow-mo aesthetic that has long felt stale. But the only character you ever really care for is Arthur's father, and his story receives the least amount of time of all. Aquaman is one small step forward for DC, but one giant leap missed for the Universe.