Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Last year, Warner Bros. threw together a whole bunch of DC superheroes for Justice League, a total mess that was kind of fun in spite of itself. Instead of doing what the MCU did and introduce the characters individually before teaming them up, they worked backwards, teaming them up and then giving them solo vehicles. The first of those is Aquaman. It is a standalone film, which makes it even stranger that they did not make this before Justice League. It is also much better, with some amazing visuals and a story with understandable stakes. At 131 minutes (plus a mid-credits scene) it is too long, with a first hour that is mostly setup, yet I began to really enjoy myself during the back half. It is not quite as good as Wonder Woman, but it is certainly more entertaining than fans feared.
Aquaman begins with Arthur’s origin story: his Mother was a Queen who fled Atlantis, his Father was a lighthouse keeper. They met, fell in love and had Arthur. Then, his Mother was forced back to Atlantis. Now all grown up, Arthur would rather stay around land and fight random bad guys as Aquaman than go down to Atlantis to claim his birthright. However, when King Orm prepares to declare war on the surface, Arthur must travel into the sea to save two worlds.
This is the usual overcomplicated goofiness, yet it has several things working in its favor.
I will start with the cast: in addition to star Jason Momoa, there is Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren and Temuera Morrison, all in key roles. One thing I can say for these superhero movies, they sure do attract talented actors.
Momoa, who was one of the best parts of Justice League, has charisma and the ability to convincingly go from silly to intense in a matter of seconds. He is very likable and has chemistry with Amber Heard, who plays Mera. She is an Atlantean who assists Arthur in his quest. Her character is mainly there to give Momoa someone to play off of; there is little depth to her. Regardless, Heard is good in that role, does not take it too seriously and is a believable action hero. Wilson, as the villain, and Dafoe, as the mentor, have the plot advancing parts. They are skilled enough to make what is going on feel kind of important, a challenge not always met by superhero movies.
Aquaman was directed by James Wan. From the underwater city of Atlantis to all sorts of crazy sea creatures, there are a lot of wild visuals on-screen that are incorporated into the action. What impressed me the most was how he organized everything so it made sense. It is possible to lose track of who is doing what and where when so much is going on. He establishes sequences in a way that makes them easy to follow even when he is cutting back and forth during the action.
There is a scene on land where Arthur is fighting someone and Mera is involved in a chase with several others. The choreography itself is nothing special, but the transition between battles, sometimes in the same shot, is so smooth that it became exciting. I find a lot of these types of movies to be interesting until the action starts. Then it is just movement and explosions. Aquaman is able to avoid that for the most part.
That is the positive stuff. What drags it down a bit is its sheer size. Not only does it need to introduce its own mythology and set up sequels, it also has to fit comfortably into the DC cinematic universe. Though there are things that seemed unnecessary to me, especially during the slow first hour, I am willing to accept that some of it will be important in the future. Even a standalone has to connect with a bunch of other movies. Additionally, because DC has released only one generally well-received project since they created this universe (Wonder Woman), there is pressure to make something good. That is a lot of things to accomplish in a single production. It is a bumpy ride at times, but Aquaman mostly succeeds.
3½ out of 5
Jason Momoa as Arthur
Amber Heard as Mera
Patrick Wilson as King Orm
Willem Dafoe as Vulko
Nicole Kidman as Atlanna
Temuera Morrison as Tom Curry
Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Manta
Directed by James Wan
Screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall