Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Aquaman “The Most Entertaining DC Comics Film Since Wonder Woman!” Also, “The Best Screen version of Aquaman Ever!” Also also, “The Greatest Film with Patrick Wilson in it of All Time!” although my son insists I really need to see Hard Candy at some point. Until I do, Aquaman beats Hard Candy.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Aquaman returns! After helping out his new super-powered landlubber buddies in last year’s Justice League, Jason Momoa has been given his own separate fish tank to swim around in. (That film is covered in a one-sentence recap that name-checks Steppenwolf. That’s more than plenty.) His origin is surprisingly brief because director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, Furious 7) would rather get to the good parts, much like the audience majority. Once upon a time Our Hero was born li’l Arthur Curry, the son of an earnest lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison, a.k.a. Jango Fett) and a fugitive queen from the underwater kingdom of Atlantis (actual warrior queen Nicole Kidman). Alas, when duty drags Mom back to her homeland, Arthur grows up in a single-parent household, aware of his lineage and his supernormal skill set, but bitter and not remotely interested in keeping in touch with “his people”. He loves his dad and his drinks in that order, and occasionally flexes his muscles to save lives and/or stop evil as needed, but as far as Atlantis is concerned, they can all go choke on a fishhook.
His simple, satisfying life gets a great big anchor swung into it when an Atlantean princess names Mera (Amber Heard, expanding on her Justice League cameo) comes a-calling, concerned that the ocean dwellers are preparing for possible war with the surface world under orders from Arthur’s half-brother Orm (that one guy Patrick Wilson), who usurped the throne after Arthur abdicated his birthright. Orm hopes to unite all the kingdoms of Atlantis under his rule, conquer sea and land, and cement his legacy as…the Ocean Master!
(Wilson seems very proud in the scene where he actually gets to announce his super-villain name. So many movie super-villains are reluctant to embrace their comic-book roots.)
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Greatest Showman) likewise gets a scene to declare himself Black Manta, another old Aquaman villain from way back when. He’s a pirate with a laser helmet, whose skill set and goals are useful to Ocean Master. Michael Beach (ER, Third Watch) is Manta’s dad, proudly passing his pirate legacy on to his son. Also unfriendly is Randall Park (Ant-Man and the Wasp) in a bit part as a ocean-loving pundit who sounds unhinged on live TV.
Meanwhile below the surface, Willem Dafoe is Vulko, Arthur’s childhood trainer and honor-bound toady to the throne and whoever squats in it. Dolph Lundgren (having a banner year after Creed II) is Mera’s dad, the ruler of a neighboring kingdom. Graham McTavish (The Hobbit, Outlander) has a moment as the long-dead ruler of ancient Atlantis. Talking undersea creatures sport famous voices including John Rhys-Davies, Djimon Hounsou, and a special guest whose name is more closely associated with another intellectual property currently in theaters.
Another Easter-egg role belongs to James Wan’s old pal Leigh Whannell (writer and costar of Saw) as a helpful pilot.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Family legacies are a tricky thing. If we embrace them, they can grow to define us, for better or worse. If we reject them, they may not release us easily.
- Ocean pollution is bad, but destroying humanity may not be the best cure for it.
- Power-mongering is bad, especially if done while sitting on a throne of lies.
- Destiny is a thing that sometimes traps awesome people, but they can get used to it.
- There’s more to life than drinking and strutting. Yes, there is.
…but primarily this movie is all about Momoa’s rippling muscles, gonzo aquatic warfare, and EXPLOSIONS. Shiny happy super-loud never-ending underwater EXPLOSIONS. It’s so exciting / with things igniting / under the sea!
Nitpicking? Viewers who appreciate the chance to breathe occasionally and have quiet moments to digest what they’ve seen so far — and/or prefer consuming their EXPLOSIONS! in moderation — may leave the theater a bit more anxious than they were when it started.
In addition to being above-average among its own company’s fare, Aquaman shares one other odd trait with Black Panther (and, for that matter, The Lion King): it rests on the supposition that monarchy is an awesome form of government as long as the monarch is awesome, but when checks-and-balances don’t exist to keep corrupt rulers in line, the only solution is a good old-fashioned overthrowing. Make of that what you will.
As with many action spectacles, bits of goofiness occur here and there, especially the homages to Super-Friends and other images from Aquaman’s not-so-beloved past. (The musical octopus? Comics did it first.) The most head-scratching for me occurs when one character appears half an hour from the end clothed in ornate battle armor, only to be left behind for the next few scenes and catch up at the end in magisterial robes even though there’s no non-silly way they would’ve had time or reason to stop and change.
So what’s to like? I’ve only seen two of the eight Fast and the Furious films, but they’re the greatest movie-trailer series of all time. They’re made entirely of the best parts, racing and crashes and death-defying jumps and increasingly ludicrous yet jaw-dropping clashes between cars and gargantuan vehicles. They’re short and low on character moments, and we never see the endings of those scenes, but they’re relentlessly energetic. Aquaman is the first real super-hero exemplar of the Fast/Furious aesthetic, refusing to settle for a mere three minutes of fun and instead delivering a 2½-hour trailer, a supercut of good parts atop good parts atop good parts.
At times so much adrenaline-junkie wizardry can be a bit wearying, but it would be utterly unendurable if it were all poorly constructed. Wan refuses to get bogged down in any one place for long, mixing it up with tracking-shot melees, Star Wars flying-ship battles (“flying” underwater, but still), epic chases, creepy creatures, giant monsters, Indiana Jones puzzles, and — for those just joining us — EXPLOSIONS! All of it thankfully swims through far better-looking and occasionally beautiful underwater effects than that workshop-print scene in Justice League, obviously before Wan and his audio-visual teams had figured out their world’s logistics.
In between, big moods rule — Ocean Master’s power-craving, Black Manta’s revenge thirst, warrior women bristling against short-sighted patriarchy but not in a position to smash the system, and of course the formidable Momoa himself, the party-hearty Hero of the Beach who’s aggravated that Atlantis won’t stop interrupting Happy Hour. He keeps winning every challenge that gets in his way, but not much about what he does suggests that he has the character to rule a kingdom with his zero years’ ruling experience. He doesn’t exactly grow into the role, or engage in any real philosophical dilemmas over the idea. He simply punches everything standing between him and the throne, because he’s told that’s what it’ll take to save the day.
Then again, he doesn’t need to be especially complex to earn the title Best Aquaman Ever. DC Comics has spent the past six years toughening him up on the printed page in preparation for this moment in the spotlight, but the general public has had no idea of the long game they’ve been playing till now. It reminds me of when we first met Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s grim, dark-humored Batman in 1989: it wasn’t quite the ideal rendition, but fans of Serious Batman were just happy he was nothing like the campy Adam West version, i.e. the only Batman ever known by most average citizens. The only way for that film to introduce newer generations to Batman as something other than a laughingstock was to make him the complete opposite. Momoa and Wan do much the same here — older viewers who only know Aquaman as the Pied Piper of Fish wearing a shirt made of goldfish skin may be shocked by his extreme macho reinvention.
I don’t know if this movie will feel thirty years from now the way that 1989’s Batman feels today, with flaws more noticeable now that we have other superhero films out there for stark contrast. Until enough time has passed for hindsight to start warping our opinions, for now Aquaman is a wildly entertaining roller coaster as long as we keep our limbs and heads safely inside the vehicle and refrain from trying to study it too closely from the outside.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Aquaman end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know what happened after the end credits without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…Black Manta lives! The villain survived his painful homage to Homer Simpson bouncing down Springfield Gorge. Now sporting a wide bandage around one eye, he seethes while watching his rescuer Dr. Stephen Shin (Asian Jim from The Office) work on his busted helmet and vow to get him up and running again in exchange for access to Atlantis. Will their dastardly plan succeed? We’ll find out if Aquaman becomes the only other DC hero besides the Big Three to get a solo movie sequel.