Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The upside of a cinematic universe is an investment in the characters and ongoing story, before the lights ever dim in the theater. The flip side — if the cinematic universe isn’t going as planned, but is still going — is a hopeful dread, that maybe this is the one that can right the ship. Aquaman is the latter for me. After meeting Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry (aka the titular super-man of the sea) in 2017’s Justice League, I was hesitantly optimist for his solo outing, if only the movie would cut its ties from what came before, from the baggage of a franchise misfire, and just be a fun flick, full of big, action set pieces and that Jason Momoa charm, set among the fishes.
But, oh, you’re expected to have seen Justice League. Mercifully, it’s addressed away in passing mention and somewhat fuzzy story logic. And here’s a way to entice me in, anyway: Cast Nicole Kidman (always on the lookout for a new wig) as a sort of mermaid warrior queen, Atlanna, of Atlantis. Dressed in a scaly, silver bodysuit, she washes ashore no more than 15 seconds into the movie, throws a trident through a TV, giddily slurps down a goldfish, falls for a lighthouse keeper, and gives birth to a baby who may one day unite the land and sea.
In the present day, that’s Momoa’s bawdy, boisterous Arthur, known as “that fish boy from the TV,” who spends his time alternately throwing ’em back at the bar and protecting the unwitting surface world from threats of the deep. (Despite the most well-known superhero in the world being a literal alien, believing in Atlantis is a step too far for humans, I guess.) That becomes an issue when Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (a blond and bewigged Patrick Wilson), declares war on the surface under the guise of environmentalism. Princess Mera (Amber Heard, headstrong and wearing heels underwater) seeks Aquaman out and draws him back to the sea, where he must face his past and his destiny, and — of course — save the world.
Aquaman, the movie, is many things, often all at once: It is broadly a soap opera — with secret babies and vengeful lovers — full of arch melodrama and camp. (Ever imagine you’d see Willem Dafoe wearing a latex skinsuit and a man bun and riding around on a hammerhead shark?) It is a costume drama, with all the requisite political machinations and royal armies being sent into battle. It is an action movie, the camera flipping and whirling as much as the stunt/CGI doubles in the scenes, set to wailing rock music, swelling strings or, at one point, a Pitbull remix of Toto’s “Africa,” played as Arthur and Mera arrive in Africa. It is a fraternity comedy, with Arthur as the ultimate frat daddy.
The thing about Aquaman is, the parts of it that are bad — and the movie does have a lot that’s good, hold tight! — are often bad in ways that other superhero movies aren’t. There are run-of-the-mill problems, big ole exposition dumps and Momoa and Heard’s cardboard chemistry, but more so it’s in director James Wan’s bigger choices. But if you’re going to take a swing, why not swing big? There are inadvertently (I think?) hilarious sequences that veer wildly into slapstick, like something from The Little Mermaid brought to life without any of the irony. Is Wan paying homage to the Aquaman cartoons of the ’60s, or is the script just corny?
Then there’s an octopus playing the drums, and somehow that works. Because, at the end of the day, it is a fun movie, full of neon colors and plenty of bubbles and told on an ambitiously large scale. Wan’s creativity in building this world is unending, and it is a blast seeing each new setup brought to life 20,000 leagues under the sea: Mer-people and fish monsters and Stormtrooperesque humanoids, spinning through seascapes that look like gloriously immersive screensavers. More of this! If we’re going to swing big, let’s really swing big with Aquaman’s ongoing adventures. More time spent exploring the splendor of Atlantis. (Let Wonder Woman and The Flash bother with the surface world.) Lean further into the camp and wackiness of an octopus playing the drums. More mermaid warrior queens. And that same Jason Momoa charm.