Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is the product of two worlds: Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), princess of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, on the run from a loveless arranged marriage, and Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), the keeper of a lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. Tom finds Atlanna injured on the rocky shore during a storm, brings her in and tends her wounds. The two fall in love and produce a son, Arthur. The King of Atlantis sends troops to bring Atlanna back, but she defeats them in battle. To keep Tom and Arthur safe, Atlanna decides to return to Atlantis. Arthur shows the ability to communicate with fish. He can also fly through water. Atlanna’s advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) meets with Arthur and trains him in the ways of Atlanteans including battle tactics and how to use his unique abilities. Now an adult, Arthur, known in the media as Aquaman, intervenes in an attempt to take over a Russian nuclear sub by a group of high-tech pirates led by David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen, II) and his father Jesse (Michael Beach). During the fight, Arthur injures Jesse who is then trapped by a torpedo that has fallen from its rack. David begs Arthur to help free his father, but he refuses and Jesse dies. David vows revenge on Arthur. Meanwhile, Atlantean King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is Arthur’s half-brother, is plotting with King Nereus (Dolph Londgren) of the Xebel tribe, to wage war on the surface world by uniting the remaining seven kingdoms of the sea, taking the title Ocean Master, and attacking with their combined forces. Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) finds Arthur and encourages him to come to Atlantis and challenge Orm for the throne and prevent the war. Arthur isn’t interested in being a king, but changes his mind when Orm, using Atlantean technology, causes huge tsunami all around the world, wreaking massive damage and nearly killing Tom. Vulko tells Arthur and Mera about the legendary Trident of Atlan, the first king of Atlantis. The magical weapon will give Arthur the power to defeat Orm and unite the kingdoms of the seas. Orm has given David Kane Atlantean weapons that Kane modifies into a suit and takes the name Black Manta. Orm sends troops and Black Manta to kill Mera and Arthur to stop them from finding Atlan’s Trident.
One of the biggest complaints about the recent superhero films from DC is they are dour, overly serious and dark. None of those criticisms can possibly be levied at “Aquaman” from director James Wan. The sixth film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is bright, colorful, funny and filled with enough action sequences to keep fans happy. It is everything “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” weren’t.
The story of “Aquaman” is overly stuffed with secondary but connected plot lines. There is his missing mother, the creation of Black Manta, Orm’s plot with Nereus, Orm gathering support from the other kingdoms, the search for Atlan’s trident and a couple of more that would be spoilers. This bloats the running time to nearly two and a half hours. While there is more than enough to occupy your attention, it causes the film to feel scattershot and disjointed. With so many bits of story to service and characters to get on screen, “Aquaman” is constantly moving, never taking the time to let a moment breathe. While this makes the long run time feel somewhat shorter (still, plan your fluids), it also makes for a film that jumps from event to event and action scene to action scene, lessening the importance of each.
That said, “Aquaman” is quite the thrill ride. There are some amazing action scenes where Jason Momoa and Amber Heard (and/or their stunt/CGI doubles) get thrown around like rag dolls. There’s a foot chase scene with Mera across the rooftops of Sicily while Black Manta and Arthur battle it out in various locations. The choreography of these scenes, as well as the editing of the two together, is a masterclass for future filmmakers in how it should be done. The opening action scene on board a submarine is equally impressive for its use of the confined space. Arthur bangs bad guys off the walls and throws them down the halls. This scene also gives us an idea of Arthur’s powers as he is shot with a gun with no apparent effect and hit with an RPG that merely stuns him. He rips metal doors off and uses them as shields and weapons. All this after raising the sub up from the depths all by himself. Aquaman is a powerful hero with abilities in the water similar to Superman’s in the air.
He also can talk to fish. This often is mentioned as a joke since Aquaman is considered by some to be a secondary character in the DC universe. While it is an important part of his abilities, it isn’t the most important aspect of the character. Clearly, he’s gone through several changes in the various reboots of the comics character and aside from some cartoons like Super Friends, there wasn’t much done with Aquaman outside the pages of comic books. Now, with DC looking to emulate the movie success of Marvel, Aquaman has got to be toughened up to be considered on the same level as Superman and Batman. Casting Jason Momoa in the role was the first step in turning Aquaman into an A-list superhero.
Aquaman is as much Momoa as he is from the pages of the comic books. Both the actor and the character in the film like to have a good time with friends and family. Both enjoy a drink or 10. Both are gregarious (perhaps Aquaman less so) and enjoy laughing. Momoa is probably the best choice to play the king of the sea and he’s clearly enjoying his time in the role. He and Amber Heard have a chemistry that jumps off the screen. Even when they are just getting to know one another, and their relationship is more adversarial, there is an undeniable connection between the two. They are a team along the lines of Lois and Clark, and Bruce and Alfred. Separately, they are formidable, but together, they are unstoppable. It is a team-up I hope to see again on the big screen.
To say the design of “Aquaman” is eye-catching is an understatement. The cities at the bottom of the sea glow with a light like that of the deep-water fish you see in documentaries. The look of the advanced technology, the vehicles and the infrastructure of Atlantis and the other kingdoms is extraordinary. The sleek hydro-dynamic designs of the various subs mimic that of sea life like manta rays and dolphins. It is a world unlike any we’ve seen before, but it all makes sense.
The characters float in their underwater world in a believable way. Their images are slightly warped by the currents in the water and their hair moves in a way that is both realistic and extremely convenient as it never gets in their faces. While some of the digital de-ageing of some characters in flashback scenes is obvious, overall the digital effects throughout the film are excellent.
“Aquaman” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. We see the aftermath of the pirates massacring the crew of the sub. We see a couple of characters stabbed or impaled. Despite the killings there is very little blood. We also see characters hit be energy weapons and blown hundreds of feet. There is also violence against and between underwater monsters created for the movie. Foul language is scattered and mild.
DC doesn’t have the best track record for their movies since the beginning of the DCEU with “Man of Steel.” Their only critical and financial success has been “Wonder Woman,” while “Suicide Squad” made money despite being roasted by film critics. “Aquaman” is likely to be a success on both fronts as it has been a huge moneymaker in China where it was released two weeks before opening in North America. With good reviews and the probability of a successful box office run, “Aquaman” may join the rarified air of a critically liked and financially successful movie for Warner Bros. and DC. Perhaps those in charge will be willing to take chances on their superpowered characters, give directors the freedom to experiment and take chances in presenting them in a new medium. I hope “Aquaman” signals a change in the fortunes of DC’s slate of superhero movies. It would be nice if they could give Marvel a run for their money. After all, a high tide raises all boats.
“Aquaman” gets five stars.
This holiday week has two new releases. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
Holmes and Watson—
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