After four disasters and one triumph, the DC Extended Universe offers the middling, non-event Aquaman, directed by James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Fast 7). This one is intended for folks seeking a visual experience who don’t care much about remembering what actually happens or why. It’s the sort of movie we might hate had it not followed some of the worst big-budget blockbusters in recent memory—it looks better in proportion to how much we hated The Dark World after consistently good output from Marvel. Bloated and silly, usually on purpose, Aquaman is not the savior of this cinematic universe but it is evidence that there is still life and vitality in these characters.
After the defeat of Steppenwolf in Justice League, Arthur (Jason Momoa) returns to his remote fishing village to do what he does best: save sailors and throw back beers with his old man. But, this time, the pirates he fends off are more dangerous than anticipated; enter Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Meanwhile, below the water in Atlantis, a secret alliance to conquer the surface has been forged, and the only one who can stop Orm (Patrick Wilson) is his long-lost brother, the surface-dweller Arthur, whose common mother is Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis. Aided by Mera (Amber Heard) and Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Arthur must seek the lost trident of Atlan and realize his full potential in order to save the kingdom, and the world.
The fun of boilerplate sci-fi/fantasy stories about mysterious prophecies and foretold things is the opportunity to go absolutely nuts when it comes to style and flair. You can create ancient underwater kingdoms from scratch, make the hero and villain as powerful as you want, and let your imagination run wild, untethered by reality. Wan does exactly this, and it’s in those moments that Aquaman is its most fun. When we’re following underwater royalty to a forbidden location atop an armored sea beast accompanied by a hair-tingling synthwave soundtrack, it’s a huge delight. When the characters arrive to do what the plot demands, it’s considerably less exhilarating, but the high of the previous sequence is usually enough to persist through the groan-worthy monologues or hammy romance. (Seriously, it’s like all two people need to do to fall in love in this universe is have spectacular hair and accidentally graze hands.)
All told, this is probably what Aquaman needed to be, a massive spectacle with a careful balance of sincerity and sarcasm, to propel this historic punchline of a character. The worst thing that can be said about it is that Black Manta is utterly wasted; his role in the film is insultingly small, and his motivation incredibly thin. Momoa is having a great deal of fun, but it’s doubtful he’ll be the same kind of comedic and dramatic revelation that Chris Hemsworth was in later Thor installments. (And whoever was in charge of wigs could have been given a little extra time or money. It’s not a good look when the CG monsters are more realistic than the human actors.)
The rest of the cast is punching way below their weight, but succeed in elevating the story to be worth your time. Looks aside, Aquaman is aggressively average, which just may be enough to willingly spend more money on the DCEU.
PG-13, 142 minutes, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
See it again
R, 132 minutes. The Paramount Theater, December 28.
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000