The notion of an Aquaman movie even existing feels like we’ve reached peak … something. I can’t help but think of a prognosticator in, say, 2012 declaring, “The superhero movie boom just isn’t going to last.” Then we smash-cut to now, with the opening of Aquaman – a hero headlining his own film that’s so preposterous in nature it was a running joke for an entire season of Entourage. Well, who’s laughing now? (Actually, I don’t know who is laughing. Maybe Aquaman is laughing? Maybe nobody? Who’s to say, really.)
Whether you come out of Aquaman enjoying it or not, there’s no argument that director James Wan went for it. With Aquaman, this is a swing for the fences type movie. (I’ll come back to that cliché I just used in a minute.) Wan isn’t really interested in making a small scale movie to introduce Aquaman – a character most people don’t know that well beyond what they know from old Saturday morning cartoons – instead, Wan plunges us into Aquaman’s weird, might as well be alien world.
While watching Aquaman, I kept thinking about 2011’s Green Lantern (Don’t panic!) because these are two movies that have similar things to establish. First, they have to establish our hero. Then they have to introduce us to this whole other weird world our hero belongs to. This is a tough task. When you make a Batman or a Spider-Man movie, we already kind of get his world because he’s just a dude roaming around a city. But when you make a Green Lantern movie, we have to meet the Green Lantern Corp. And when you make an Aquaman movie, you have to deal with Atlantis. And in both cases our hero is meeting these worlds for the first time, right along with us. It’s here that Green Lantern failed and Aquaman succeeds.
The film starts in the past, as we see an injured Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed up on some Maine rocks and being by a mild-mannered lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). They fall in love, have a son, Arthur, and live a life of peace and prosperity until one day when armored water warriors show up with laser guns to take Atlanna away (that old classic love story).
Years later, Arthur (Jason Momoa) and his father hang out together at Maine watering holes and seem to have quite a heck of a time together. Arthur is a hero who is comfortable in his own skin and seems to enjoy just being. He’s not against being a hero, but he doesn’t seem to be openly looking to be a hero, either. If he had it his way he’d just stay at the bar and that would be the movie. (I’d actually watch that movie.) But, no, Mera (Amber Heard) shows up to explain that Arthur’s half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), is up to no good. He’s trying to rally the seven underwater kingdoms together to wage a war against the surface dweller. And it’s up to Arthur, who comes from both worlds, to stop this from happening. From here we are off to Atlantis and everything gets weird and big and colorful. This is a movie that wants to kill you with sensory overload. (It may have even succeeded. I’m fairly sure I am writing this as a ghost. Boo.)
Did I enjoy that? I keep asking myself this question. I think I did? At least mostly? It’s a strange movie, at least for a movie titled Aquaman. It’s certainly more enjoyable than most of the other movies this DC universe has produced, with the exception of Wonder Woman. (And before you yell at me, I still maintain that Man of Steel is pretty good. The others are not.) Though, I am convinced this movie doesn’t work without Jason Momoa. His performance is best defined as “cocky.” And not because his character is cocky (which he is, but still), more than his performance just feels like he’s judging the audience’s judgment in a, “Hey, buddy, are you and I going to have problem?” kind of way. At one point Aquaman and Mera hide inside a whale’s mouth, just riding along on its tongue. Momoa sells this scene with pure braggadocio. In that if I don’t like what I’m seeing, he may punch me. I do not want to get punched by Jason Momoa.
(As an aside, I just want to use this parenthetical paragraph to point out how much I love Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta. He’s not in the movie a lot, basically his role is to help Orm start a fake war so that Orm can declare a real war. It’s hinted Black Manta will play a much larger role in the second movie and I cannot wait. His character motivations feel the most fleshed out and he just looks cool. Yeah, whatever, I don’t care: Black Manta’s costume is just awesome. And it’s a practical suit instead of CGI. He also has a jetpack so he can fly. He’s basically Boba Fett. I’m in.)
At the end of the day (or, anytime of the day, really) I think I admire Aquaman more than I like it. It’s certainly ambitious. Remember earlier when I used the cliché about this movie “swinging for the fences.” I do think Wan and company pulled off what they wanted to accomplish. But it’s basically a “swing for the fence” where the ball donks off someone’s head and then goes over the fence, leaving us all standing here not knowing quite what to make of what we just saw. Should I cheer? Should I laugh? Is everyone okay? Aquaman is one strange movie, but certainly a fun one.
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