Imagine, ten years ago, if someone had told you the future of the DC cinematic universe would rest on the shoulders of…Aquaman. Yeah, that Aquaman, the character who had only really made it into pop culture consciousness as a fish-wrangling joke. Fresh from the, if not triumph, then at least plummet-arresting crunching gear change of “Justice League”, the DCEU looks to rise once again from the depths with this Māui-ised incarnation of Arthur Curry.
Spending his days fighting pirates and rescuing fishermen and his nights drinking, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is content to keep a low profile but his past catches up with him when Mera (Amber Heard) pleads with him to challenge his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) for the throne of Atlantis to prevent a coming war between the land and the oceans.
Like “Justice League” before it, “Aquaman” is something of a mixture. Here and there are the signs of the old, failed DCEU but its much smoother than in Justice League and it’s overwhelmingly bright and upbeat, eschewing the dour, nihilism of the still lurking as executive producer Zack Snyder. So yes, there’s still conspicuous and wanton property damage but there’s also a conscious attempt to show the prioritising and saving of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. In James Wan, “Aquaman” has a director who wisely decides to place visuals and action first, which keeps the interest when the performances falter or the story trips up over itself.
Momoa himself is a likeable beefcake but there are still question marks over whether he’s leading man material, as opposed to the wise-cracking muscle of an ensemble. He may be hampered by the presence of Amber Heard whose performance is so hollow it’s a wonder she’s able to submerge at all. The rich supporting cast, featuring Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren and Temuera Morrison (all of whom get to play with DC’s answer to Marvel’s anti-aging CGI technology with varying degrees of success) are game for the high fantasy aquatic action but are underserved by a clunky and awkward script which often forces them to chew through risibly gnomic dialogue. Patrick Wilson looks suitably cross as the would-be villain of the piece, Aquaman’s half-brother Orm, but the film just doesn’t give him and Momoa enough non-fighting scenes together to develop any real chemistry, robbing us of a potential rival to the Thor/ Loki dynamic. All of which leaves us with Black Manta. Design wise, the film does a fantastic job of taking a ludicrous comic-book villain design and bringing it to life on screen without making it seem or look ridiculous. Unfortunately, in a film full of flat performances, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is flat out terrible, his performance undermining what could be an effective and exciting villain.
Wan shrewdly keeps things moving, ensuring that the inertia of the cast simply gets swept along from one set piece to the other. A brawl through a coastal Sicilian village is a stand-out moment as is the arrival in the Kingdom of the Trench which leans into Wan’s horror director roots and gives us a maritime Hieronymus Boschian vision of a descent into the watery depths of Hell. Every so often, though, Wan’s vision is let down by some shoddy CGI, particularly during the Saharan dessert scenes where there such bad matting that’s it’s a wonder George Lucas isn’t desperately trying to sneak onto the WB lot to ‘special edition’-ise the scenes.
Its connections to the wider DCEU are downplayed (although there is a savagely metatextual self-troll in the finale of the movie) – no doubt to give the studio room to reboot/ reimagine as required and while there is mention of the defeat of Steppenwolf, it creates a bit of a problem for the story. Orm’s plan to wage war on the surface is something he seems very confident will go quite smoothly so it might have been a nice touch for him to have mentioned having some idea of how to deal with the likely intervention of Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the League when he launched his onslaught.
All in all, though, “Aquaman” delivers the vital ingredient which has been missing from most of DC’s recent output: it’s good fun. It’s by no means a great superhero movie but it’s pretty damn good, despite its faults, and has a swashbuckling charm that occasionally feels like it should have a Ray Harryhausen monster or two (in a good way). There’s a clunky Saturday matinee charm to the adventurousness of it all and while the undersea scenes are spectacular in their design, they tend towards the plodding whereas most joy is to be found in the scenes above the surface. Not every new superhero movie needs to be a genre game-changer or, indeed, epic and “Aquaman” very much isn’t. But it is a pretty good time and for DC fans and general audiences alike, that should be enough for now.