It probably can’t be understated just how big of a disaster Justice League was. Taking into account production troubles, critical and audience response, and paltry box office returns, it wasn’t the kind of showing you’d want from your universe-connecting team-up movie. Normally, it’d be the kind of failure that would see a studio slam on the brakes before any more damage to the brand could be inflicted. However, Warner Bros.’s next project in the pantheon, Aquaman, wasn’t just already in production at the time, but had already wrapped. Sufficient to say, if people hadn’t taken to the underwater superhero, their prospects for continuing this limping franchise outside of Wonder Woman would’ve just about gone kaput. Fortunately for them, the people have, and with a resounding “My man!” As far as this writer is concerned, there’s definitely a lot to cheer about, namely a charismatic star in Jason Momoa, who has essentially shaken off the kind of leading-man woes he suffered at the hands of 2011’s Conan the Barbarian. Granted, it does have plenty of issues as well, particularly in the fact that it suffers from origin-story-itis and is roughly twenty minutes too long as a result. But if there’s anyone who can keep you entertained as your eyeballs start to ache it’s James Wan, who may be overly reliant on CGI here but is so wickedly talented at camerawork you’ll be forgiven for not noticing. Is Aquaman as good as the other heavy-hitting superhero movies of 2018? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But as a part of a larger franchise that has infamously doured things up to mask a lack of identity, this colorful, lighthearted romp is certainly a welcome addition.
Aquaman centers on Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the son of Atlantean Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), thus making him of both the land and subterranean worlds. When his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) begins rallying troops to invade the surface in retaliation for oceanic pollution, Arthur is contacted by the Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who believes he is the only one who can gain Atlantean favor and prevent Orm from waging war. Arthur having never visited Atlantis, their only hope is to track down the mystical Trident of Atlan. Orm anticipates this, and thus equips a vengeful foe of Aquaman’s, one David Kane / Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Matten II), to stop them. Whilst fending off these threats, Arthur will have to find his purpose in life by not only reuniting the Seven Kingdoms, but by bringing peace to the entire world in the process.
Some of you may be shaking your head at my saying this is an origin movie, seeing as how he was already Aquaman in Justice League; hell, in Batman v Superman, no less. To which I will agree, yes, his powers were technically realized, but it’s here where we learn all about where he comes from, what that means, exactly what he can do, yada yada yada. Sure, we don’t have to sit through him getting bitten by a radioactive dolphin or whatever, but there is a lot that goes into fleshing out the world in which he lives. It’s an essential element, no doubt, but when so much time is dedicated to various expository flashbacks – seriously, there are FOUR other actors who play Arthur Curry at younger ages – it can start to take its toll on the runtime and prevent it from simply getting to the crux of the conflict. A lot of superhero movies these days have started to eschew the whole origin story approach on a character’s first outing, namely Spider-Man: Homecoming, simply for the reason that it’s been played out to the point that the beats feel ultra familiar. While most moviegoers don’t have the benefit of already having the skinny on who Aquaman is, and a lot of it is necessary, there’s still plenty they could have trimmed here to make it a more fluid film.
Having said that, when they do get to the meat and potatoes of the story Aquaman really takes off. Going on concept alone, this is one that Warner Bros. really had to shell out some extra cash to do it justice, it being made for approximately $50 million more than alternate DC origin movie, Wonder Woman. And good thing too, because the action sequences are spectacular. Be they underwater or on land, James Wan really knows how to play with the toys he’s been given. Which comes as no surprise these days, provided you’ve seen the likes of Furious 7 or The Conjuring movies. Still, he outdoes himself here, delivering some of the best visual effects you’ll see all year. However, while the visual effects are great, they often overstay their welcome in scenes that don’t particularly call for it. Case in point, when Aquaman visits Atlantis and has tête-á-têtes and what not with the people down there, you know, when there’s no fighting going on, the film suddenly screams green screen to the point where it hardly feels like the actors are even moving around a physical space. Again, I’m not decrying the lengths they had to go to to actually pull this movie off, but it never really injects a sense of verisimilitude into the proceedings. In other words, never was I fully immersed in the experience and had my disbelief suspended.
But let’s talk about one of the bigger question marks going in that would largely decide the fate of the standalone films going forward: Jason Momoa. A lot of people were split on his performance in Justice League, with some calling him the best part while others criticized his caricatural nature. Whether it’s simply the fact that he’s getting his own outing and thus has more room to grow, Aquaman definitely comes across as a more relatable and entertaining character. I’ll admit, I had my doubts when they cast Momoa as the title character, he being a deviation from what most people imagine when they imagine Aquaman, but he proves himself to be quite the charismatic and robust action star – though that last part was never in question. While I still don’t know if he has the gravitas to anchor a more serious film going forward in his career, he seems right at home rocking the green and orange. I think a lot of people are going to gravitate toward him and his future movies the way people currently gravitate toward Thor in the MCU following Thor: Ragnarok, and not just for the obvious reasons. Yes, he’s a big, bearded dude from a mystical world with a sorta brother who wants to kill humanity and uses a big-ass staff to wreck his opponents, but he’s also the coolest hero of the bunch and the one you’d be most inclined to grab a beer with. Sure, I didn’t think Broquaman could work – is that a thing? – but hey, sometimes it’s fun to be wrong.
At the end of the day, I think Aquaman is better than it has any right to be, mostly because it lays a lot of ground work for the better Aquaman movie I think we’ll get in the future. It’s still light years away from being as good as the best film in the DCEU, aka Wonder Woman, but this one sits in a comfortable second.
Final Score: 6/10