If you’ve been harbouring the notion that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has been floundering ever since Justice League failed to capitalise on Wonder Woman’s success, well, you shouldn’t – not a-Nemo.
The comic-book character Aquaman was always kind of a generic second-stringer to me, at least until writer Peter David’s scorching mid-1990s run on the title.
And star Jason Momoa, his non-blondeness aside, does call to mind the wild-haired, bearded King of Atlantis from that iconic stretch of issues.
While I had doubts about the casting, considering his merely-OK outing as Conan the Barbarian back in 2011, Momoa acquitted himself well in Justice League.
Here, in his solo title – whoops, movie – he totally owns the role and shows up most of his DCEU comrades in the process.
He has help in the form of a tip-top supporting cast (creepy CGI de-ageing aside, especially on Temuera Morrison and Willem Dafoe’s characters), a rip-roaring script that embraces its corny moments, and cheeky, frenzied direction by James Wan.
These combined talents and elements come together to make Aquaman a titanic waterspout of a movie.
It sweeps us up in its vortex for an utterly bonkers ride as we gawk at astounding sights ranging from gaudy neon bioluminescent wonders, to pseudo-Lovecraftian horrors of the deep, to a kaiju that’s, what, Level 10? 20?
But this great spectacle of a popcorn-shoveller is more than just Atlantic Rim. Like Thor: Ragnarok, it has a very unself-conscious vibe out of the 1970s and 1980s (down to the Jean-Michelle Jarre-like synthesiser music that accompanies some of its undersea scenes) but keeps a tighter rein on the jokiness.
Some of these decades-old sensibilities may seem out of date (to keep this spoiler-free, let’s just say you’ll know them when they hit you in the face) but as stated earlier, the movie is totally unabashed about its more hackneyed aspects.
The focus here is on Arthur Curry/Aquaman’s journey from the drunken sometimes-guardian of the seas we saw earlier to becoming the rightful King of Atlantis.
It is fraught with moments of doubt and defeat, as all good heroic journeys are, with grand moments you will see coming miles away (some of which will still make you go “awww”) and, of course, triumph.
Also pleasing to fans of the comics will be the way the film develops Aquaman’s relationship with Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard, beguiling as a redhead and excellent at badassery), taking its time but eventually coming to a satisfying milestone moment.
The villainy is also considerably better than a lot of what we’ve seen in superhero movies to date, with Patrick Wilson being a suitably regal, purposeful menace as Arthur’s half-brother King Orm.
You may decry his methods, but his actions – he intends to wage war on the surface world after uniting (by force if necessary) the scattered kingdoms of Atlantis – do seem justifiable thanks to the awful way humankind treats the oceans.
(Yep, you can’t make a movie set on and under the sea without weaving in a bit of eco-commentary, clunky and obvious as it may be here.)
The secondary baddie, the armoured villain known as Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is somewhat shallower in motive and execution. But he is the linchpin of one of the film’s coolest sequences, an explosive chase/battle across the rooftops of a picturesque Sicilian seaside town.
That breathtaking scene is but one of many slickly-executed and gorgeously-shot moments in a film that is chock-a-block with them.
So what kind of experience is Aquaman? As a fun ride, it has few peers. That part of your breath which it doesn’t take away, it will catch in your throat with some effectively emotive scenes. And, well, it is not above making you wince at some of the sillier bits, too.
But the net result is that it gives the DCEU another much-needed hit, while giving moviegoers a hero whose spirit and relatable foibles make for a welcome escape from a reality fraught with folly and folie.
Director: James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Willem Dafoe, Temuera Morrison, Dolph Lundgren, Randall Park