*** out of ****
(for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language)
Released: December 21, 2018
Runtime: 143 minutes
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Michael Beach, Randall Park
The latest attempt to set the DC Extended Universe right doesn’t waste any time trying to mimic the Marvel brand. It’s having way too much fun creating an outlandish identity of its own – and unrepentantly owning it.
Shedding the burdened grimness of Zack Snyder’s Batman/ Superman/ Justice League installments, Aquaman explodes with the kind of colorful action adventure that audiences are looking for in their blockbusters – for an unrelenting two hours-plus, no less.
Wonder Woman achieved the same thing but through different means, focusing on Diana Prince’s noble idealism. Aquaman, by contrast, mixes tongue-in-cheek humor with brash bravado in a visual spectacle that at times, even by modern standards, feels unprecedented.
Writ flamboyant on an obscene scale, the overkill of Aquaman is obnoxiously glorious.
With a digital palette of gaudy and garish designs, director James Wan (The Conjuring, Furious 7) makes excess a strength. His indulgences – which are many, and often – are never unwieldy, nor do they dissolve into some incoherent mishmash.
There are so many visual concepts and ideas on display that it seems doubtful any were left on the development room table, and yet they all work together as a cohesive piece. Wan takes a “kitchen sink” approach that overwhelms us but never him or his vision. (This is a flick worth the IMAX ticket.)
From sea-faring depths to globetrotting flights and fathoms below back again, Wan stages a wide variety of thrilling set pieces that thoroughly entertain. Fight scenes boast an over-the-top swagger that are the superhero equivalent of a WWE smackdown, complete with hard rock guitar cues for shameless emphasis.
And in star Jason Momoa, they have a beefcake lead that’s built and buffed to order.
What’s never lost in all of this, however, is a considered origin story or the world building around it. Atlantis is fashioned into a Rome-like empire, one that crumbled and fell into the sea only to re-emerge in its evolution. But now, they need a new leader to maintain peace between the people of land and sea.
Yes, Aquaman follows every typical Hero’s Journey beats, almost slavishly (kingdoms, thrones, birthrights, and chosen ones, looming war, divided worlds, and a hero that doubts his purpose and pedigree – you know the drill).
But as it checks off its list, Aquaman never gets bogged down in inordinate self-import (which can be an occasional MCU drag). This knows what it is. The script deftly simplify matters, too, even playfully, like reducing a battle plan to “Don’t die” and then just going for it.
More importantly, amidst all the balls-out mayhem and perfunctory plotting, there’s a genuine mythic quality to the mythos. An appropriation of the King Arthur legend makes for a good foundation (Aquaman’s real name is Arthur), but so much of why it resonates comes in the conviction of the actors, even as they spout some laughably folkloric comic book jargon.
The ensemble is invested with a earnest sincerity when a moment requires, and Wan has an unfailing sense of when that should be. Having actors like Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman certainly helps, plus Patrick Wilson proves a formidable foe as Arthur’s half-brother who lays claim to the Atlantian throne.
But it’s Momoa and, yes, Amber Heard that carry the weight with passion. Heard in particular brings an unexpected intelligence and regality, which serves as the necessary influence on Arthur who needs to start seeing himself as a king and not just a blunt force object.
Wan melds various tones into his phantasmagoric display with audacious aplomb; there are scaly, scary creatures and opulent designs that would make monster-maven Guillermo del Toro proud.
Then, when the moment finally comes that Arthur truly “becomes” Aquaman, well damned if it didn’t give me chills. Every time this movie needs to land a payoff, it does.
There are so many ways in which this decadent exhibition could have collapsed into a complete mess, and should have, but it never does. This is pop entertainment delivered with a truly remarkable command.
If the DCEU is still looking for its MCU guru equivalent (ala Kevin Feige), it should stop. Resist the temptation to say “Hand the DCEU over to James Wan” (just as people were saying about Patty Jenkins after Wonder Woman). It would be a mistake to give it to either of them, or anyone, in some desperate attempt to bring cohesion to their universe. That’s not what DC needs.
As Wan and Jenkins are proving, DC is already on track. Just keep finding the right visionaries for each respective superhero, directors who understand the virtues that make each character work – both as heroes and people – along with a vision for their respective worlds.
That won’t result in the same kind of unifying vision that the MCU has built, nor will it likely reap the same level of unprecedented success, but it sure seems destined to offer up a lot more exciting surprises.