The Pitch: After the events of Justice League, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) returns to his life of drinking and busting low-level pirates. However, he’s soon summoned by Princess Mera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis to claim his rightful place upon the throne and stop half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) from gathering the various tribes of Atlantis for war with the surface world. To do that, he’ll need to search for the Trident of Atlan (a weapon that will grant him the power to look more like he did in the comics) while reckoning with the vengeful pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and the specter of his long-missing mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman).
My Man!: “I’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it,” brags Arthur in one moment of James Wan’s Aquaman. This isn’t the first Hollywood attempt to turn Momoa into a bankable star – does anyone else remember the reboot of Conan the Barbarian he did in 2011? – but it does make the best use of his particular set of skills. He’s a hulking, formidable presence who can also be a gentle giant when the occasion calls for it. As Arthur, he gives a performance not unlike Andre the Giant’s in The Princess Bride, cracking skulls and wise in equal measure. Whether he’s finding several excuses to be shirtless and soaked, or taking selfies with a biker gang in an inspired gag, the character of Arthur Curry might be the best use of Momoa’s very specific brand of lunkhead charm.
Where he falters, though, is in the big dramatic moments, as Aquaman doggy-paddles toward something of a character arc for Arthur that basically amounts to Wet Thor. He’s a hulking brute, destined to rule a futuristic kingdom, but has to humble himself and learn how to be a better hero before he can defeat his scheming, manipulative half-brother who also has eyes on the throne. Sound familiar? However, the arc seems perfunctory, Arthur not changing so much as grunting toward growth as the film barrels onward to the next gorgeously-rendered setpiece. In that respect, it’s a blessing that Aquaman’s second act largely manifests that as an erstwhile Indiana Jones adventure, with Momoa bouncing charmingly off Heard’s resolute mermaid Mera.
This is also paired with an under-baked subplot involving Black Manta, who seeks revenge against Curry for getting his father killed through neglect. While the setpiece that results (a rollicking chase through Sicily dodging Orm’s aquatic goons) is the film’s best, it’s also the most unnecessary.
YAYUH!: The real appeal of Aquaman comes down to director James Wan, who goes full bore with all the Silver Age pulp the source material has to offer. At two and a half hours, the film is an absolute mess of clunky dialogue and convoluted worldbuilding, haphazardly juggling more than a half-dozen subspecies of Atlanteans, bounty hunters, and centuries-old prophecies. Even so, Wan glides through these plot points with all the carefree elan of a school of dolphins, turning his focus to making every action beat, every joke, every piece of Atlantean production design as ridiculous as possible. Aquaman makes for the kind of earnestly goofy Flash Gordon nonsense that elevated Jupiter Ascending, Tron: Legacy, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (all of which act as clear, generous inspirations for Wan’s vision of the undersea world). His Atlantis a colorful, deliberate departure from the dimness of the DCEU to date, filling the screen with bioluminescent aquatic vehicles and incredible pops of color.
And Now, a Brief List of Just Some of the Goofy Shit You’ll See in Aquaman:
-An octopus plays the drums.
-A goat does a double take.
-Giant sea turtles being used as cargo haulers.
-People firing machine guns and rocket launchers inside the world’s roomiest submarine, apparently to no ill effect.
-Armies of giant crabs fight fish-men who shoot underwater lasers while riding sharks.
-Characters say things like “Where I come from, the sea carries our tears away”.
-Two words: WINE KNIVES. Not wine bottle knives; knives made of wine.
-Patrick Wilson wears this mask in complete sincerity.
The Verdict: Aquaman is a pure piece of bright, ridiculous spectacle, hammering its Saturday morning cartoon sensibilities down its audience’s throat with a huge, cheesy grin on its face. While it’s not nearly as smart or progressive as last year’s Wonder Woman, Aquaman is a gleeful outlet for those who still hold a special place in their heart for over-designed space operas likeJupiter Ascending or Flash Gordon. There’s still room at the table for Arthur Curry to flash his big meathead grin at people and bonk them on the head.
Where’s It Playing?: Every damn theater it can possibly swim into, beginning December 21st.