As a man who gave Justice League a one-star review and described Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Aquaman as ‘woefully underdeveloped, unengaging (and)… a complete bore’, it’s fair to say I wasn’t too excited about the protector of the deep getting his own solo movie. Sure enough, when the trailers came along they seemed pretty bad – not Justice League bad – but nothing that altered my belief this film would sink like a stone. Oh, how wrong it was. In a highly saturated market Aquaman takes its USP – water-based shenanigans – and goes crazy with it, giving us underwater monsters, water knives and so much more.
“This is a film that cares about Aquaman – treating him with the right balance of silliness and sincerity – and this care ensures we get a performance, theme and world that fans of the aquatic hero can be proud of”
The Phase One MCU comparisons may be a back-handed compliment from some critics, but I use it in good faith as the movie channels everything that was good about the first Thor (strong location, grandeur, compelling central performance following a tough guy who learns a lesson, decent villain who happens to be the hero’s brother and a nice little romance) and combines it with the adventurous thrills of Indiana Jones, as a side quest to find a magical McGuffin leads to a ton of fun action and some great character moments. This is a win for DC, who genuinely seem to have learned from their mistakes by placing this film in the hands of horror darling James Wan (who, crucially, isn’t Zack Snyder) and giving him the opportunity to put his own stamp on the franchise – namely uniquely stunning visuals and a few solid jump scares.
Furthermore, there is no studio mandated two-hour runtime here, as the film clocks in at 142 minutes allowing time for a globe-trotting narrative and complete character arcs, meaning the dauntingly lengthy period flies by. I sensed we were in for a treat when the film took the time to open with the meeting and romance of Arthur’s parents, establishing key themes and narrative beats in an expectation-defying opening sequence with great pay-off. This is a film that cares about Aquaman – treating him with the right balance of silliness and sincerity – and this care ensures we get a performance, theme and world that fans of the aquatic hero can be proud of.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the underdeveloped nature of Patrick Wilson’s King Orm is the most significant issue with the movie, as the Wan mainstay phones in a predictable performance. As issues go however, this is far from film-breaking as the character gets some strong action moments and dialogue towards the end of the picture. Aside from Wilson, the supporting cast impress with Amber Heard likeable, funny and a bit of a badass as a romantic interest that defies stereotypes, Willem Dafoe an excellent mentor figure in his return to the superhero genre and Dolph Lundgren showing decent acting chops in what has arguably been the best year of his career. Nicole Kidman adds star-power and Yahya Abdul-Manteen II shows potential in the role of fan favourite Black Manta, a character I hope to see more of in the coming years. In truth, I’d love to see more from all of these characters – there’s just so much fun to be had spending time with this cast in this world. The highest praise of all must be reserved for Momoa who is utterly transformed and immediately iconic in the role – nailing the character of Arthur Curry in the dramatic, humorous and tender moments.
Aquaman – the character and the movie – is a pleasant end-of-year surprise, better than it has any right to be and far better than any of us expected. Its success only makes me more frustrated about the previous failings of DC’s film branch (imagine how awesome a team-up would have been after a couple more solo movies of this quality), but also gives me a hint of excitement for things to come. With Shazam! looking highly promising and other exciting projects such as Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 in development, DC may well be back with a bang having struck gold in Atlantis.