There’s probably no better time than now for an Aquaman movie, this Aquaman movie, to drop like a much-too-moist dollop on the heads of the overstimulated theater-goers of the world. Optimistic about the fate of our doomed global ecosystem—there is time, Aquaman claims, for us to take responsibility for this world we’re ruining—but also cowardly about the direness of our doomed global ecosystem—those billionaire monsters killing all of us, Aquaman (Jason Momoa) claims, are sure some real “jerks,” but still, the world above the surface is great!—James Wan’s addition to the DCEU is by far its lightest, and so most likely best, bit of canon yet. Paying environmental catastrophe lip service is an expected thematic conceit for movies in 2018, but no one (hypothetically) wants to pay to sit in a damp two hours and 20 minutes of guilt when every film in this Universe to come before was either suffocatingly grim or unfairly tasked with shouldering the entire weight of Hollywood’s misogyny. All Wan had to do was deliver a blisteringly colorful spectacle. Aquaman is dumb and loud and really dumb and too long and dumb but also wonderfully creative and shameless; it’s both the superhero film we need, and the one we deserve.
The plot, as is the case in almost every DCEU entry, is as bloated as it is messy and predictable, a whale carcass washed up on shore sliced in half by Atlantean plasma lasers during a Two Towers-league battle with an army of crab people. We learn through painful voiceover that debonair drunk Arthur Curry (Momoa) is the offspring of a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the Queen of Atlantis, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, dreadful), who washed ashore during a storm in 1985. The two fall in love because the lighthouse keeper shows her simple human kindness, and together they get down to domesticating, but not long after, Atlantean soldiers come to take Atlanna back to Atlantis in shackles, a traitor for her commingling with oxygen-breathing humans.
Arthur grows up steadily learning about his powers as a half-royal-Atlantean, able to communicate with marine life, control the tides, swim at impossible speeds, deflect bullets (?) and generally be really strong, his pubescent training entrusted to Atlanna’s vizier, Vulko (Willem Dafoe, so on the same page as this movie), to one day take his rightful place as King. Of course, even super-advanced underwater societies are filled with bigots, so Arthur’s cast out by his Lovecraftian full-breed brethren—including Orm (Patrick Wilson), his half-brother and future ruler—while his mom’s supposedly executed for her crimes against Atlantean purity. Pissed and capable of drinking a lot of alcohol, Arthur spends his nights getting wasted with his dad and his days fighting pirates on the Atlantic, where he happens to meet scientifically-gifted mercenary David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and a tale of paternal vengeance ensues. This is pretty much only the first 25 minutes of Aquaman.
Inevitably, Arthur’s past comes to find him in the form of oddly over-sexualized Atlantean Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who wears high heels underwater, calling on Arthur to return to Atlantis and claim his rightful place as King from the bellicose hands of Orm, who, with the help of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, certifiable good actor now) of the Xebel underwater tribe (and Mera’s dad), wants to unite all the kingdoms of the “Seven Seas” to become the legendary Ocean Master and wage war on humans. Because humans are destroying the planet. Or something. Obviously, Orm is power hungry and petulant, but Wilson plays him not as a caricature like Kidman does her supernatural being, but as a magnanimous, well-loved ruler whose many grievances are, despite his malevolent means, pretty much warranted. Only Dafoe seems to get what’s going on as well as Wilson, the two injecting pathos and believable moral conflict into an otherwise bland, straightforward narrative culled from every recent blockbuster, like Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp, peppered with winking nods to other sea-based standards such as Jaws.
On the other fin, the burgeoning romance between Arthur and Mera makes little sense, birthed only, one can guess, from the fact that they’re both hot, as ineptly executed as the inciting romance between Atlanna and Arthur’s dad. In fact, what the MCU films almost always have over any DCEU counterpart are action scenes with character-building stakes, making the crucial connection between kinetic exhibition and emotional consequences. As my fellow editor Michael Burgin pointed out: Compare the museum heist scene with Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Klaue (Andy Serkis) in Black Panther to the opening pirate sequence in Aquaman, in which David Kane and his father (Michael Beach) cease all inertial action stakes to hold a heart-to-heart about pride and criminal nepotism. For the most part, the DCEU just can’t square its admittedly exciting set pieces with solid storytelling. In turn, whenever Aquaman pops a squat to unload exposition, it grinds to an interminable halt.
Those action scenes, though. Revolutionary at best, innovative at worst, Wan and his team have taken what Justice League incapably worked around—talking/interacting/fighting/living underwater—and transformed that obstacle into a marvelous strength, using the omnidirectional freedom of subterranean saltwater violence to make up for the “everyone is flying” bullshit of Zack Snyder’s wet dreams while never abandoning the unique physics (limitations) of all that wetness. A late film battle scene between Orm’s hordes and the aforementioned talking crustaceans is astounding: a feat of design and imagination for which James Wan should understand that this is most likely why he’s on this Earth. Likewise, while the surface scenarios featuring Arthur and Mera searching for a lost trident that holds the key to saving the world just add needless fat to an already drowning runtime, one rooftop, wall-obliterating sequence shines, a demonstration of Wan’s formidable grip on action grammar, pushing long takes and swooping crane shots to establish a seamless, real-time geography for Mera, Arthur and Black Manta (David Kane decked out in Atlantean armor technology) to just wreck each other’s day. Bell towers explode; the living rooms and privacy of more than two Sicilian grandmothers are violated. Granted, the scene exists for its own sake, devoid of narrative stakes and sense, but that’s hardly ever been a valid argument against any contemporary studio movie anyway.
Aquaman, then, is the natural result of what Justice League hath wrought, Justice League itself a natural result of what Snyder hath wrought before it. Where Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were humorless, Justice League was “funny”; Aquaman is “funnier.” Where Snyder’s DCEU was a sepia wasteland of shadows, Aquaman is a neon wonderland, Aquaman’s Atlantean armor a shining bastion of bright gold and green. If Justice league was a self-aware course correction, then Aquaman is course correction as business model, a denial of much of what Snyder established, leaning hard into Momoa’s charm and Wan’s old-school fantasy proclivities. It would be ridiculous to assume that Wan wouldn’t introduce Aquaman through one-too-many cock-rocking electric guitar riffs, accompanied by Momoa mean-mugging the camera (which seems to be the DCEU’s sole through line); it would be ridiculous to expect a movie like this to denounce the corporate monoliths that both gave it $200M-plus to work with and gives our hero a reason to call them “jerks.” But if there’s anything we can expect out of our blockbuster movies anymore, it’s unmitigated ridiculousness. In 2018, that’s all we can really count on. May Martha bless us, everyone.
Director: James Wan
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Dolph Lundgren
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.