Perhaps the most comic-booky of comic book movies to hit the screen since Superman (1978), Aquaman is rough around the edges but nevertheless an enjoyably silly ride that unabashedly embraces the cheesiness and weirdness of its world and runs — er, swims — with it at full speed.
It doesn’t hurt that charismatic Jason Momoa is at the helm; his debut as the half-human, half-Atlantean hero in last year’s Justice League was one of the few highlights of that particular slog. Momoa’s range may be limited, but his enthusiasm is boundless and infectious.
Aquaman picks up after the aforementioned team-up flick after opening with a prologue that sums up Arthur Curry/Aquaman’s tempestuous origin as the child of a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and undersea queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Theirs is a forbidden affair, and Atlanna is sentenced to death for it.
Cut to 30 or so years later. Arthur has turned his back on his Atlantean heritage and instead become a mysterious high-seas avenger who protects the ocean from depredations, which puts him at odds with deep sea pirates lead by Jesse Kane (Michael Beach) and his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the latter of whom eventually becomes vengeance-minded super-villain Black Manta.
A more serious threat soon rears its head in the form of Arthur’s power-hungry half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who seeks to unite the various undersea kingdoms under his banner and wage war on the surface world. His estranged brother is reluctant to stop him, at least until deep sea princess Mera (Amber Heard) and former mentor Vulko (Willem Defoe) prod him into action.
It’s when Arthur embraces his destiny that Aquaman really takes off. Director James Wan (the Insidious, Conjuring, and The Fast and The Furious franchises) goes for broke, and delivers a visual feast. His elaborate action sequences test the boundaries of digital filmmaking, and his take on Atlantis is a combination of pseudo-ancient Greek splendor-meets-futuristic utopia that makes Asgard look like a shithole.
That’s just the tip of iceberg. Want a giant tidal wave straight outta The Abyss? It’s in the first act. Dolph Lundgren as a sea king? Check. Primeval piranha people? Hell yes. Atlantean warriors sporting armor and energy rifles riding into battle on sharks, giant sea horses, and prehistoric crocodiles? Dr. Evil would be apoplectic with envy. By the time Julie Andrews as an ancient sea monster nothing seems beyond suspension of disbelief.
Yet as over-the-top as the content often is, Wan keeps the story moving, though it is sometimes bogged down by ponderous chunks of exposition, some thin characterization here and there, and the odd bit of clunky dialogue. He makes up for that with a breezy, tongue-in-cheek story free of the self-seriousness and massive scale that has come o define the genre. More importantly, Aquaman, like Wonder Woman, shows that there is still hope for the DCEU.