Aquaman is never more bold and confident than when it is being an epic fantasy cartoon.
Based on the often derided Justice League member known for talking to fish, the film stars Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, a man born of the surface world and undersea realm of Atlantis. His unique status as a half-breed (and the rightful heir to Atlantis’s throne) makes him especially suited to diffuse a political situation Princess Mera (Amber Heard) hopes to avoid: war with the surface. The pair set out on a journey to retrieve a magical totem which will prove Arthur as the one, true king of the oceans while preparing him to rule a fantasy land.
At least, that’s what the movie tells you it wants to be. But with the echoes of Warner Bros.’s attempts to establish a cinematic DC superhero universe, Aquaman never completely becomes the full-throated fantasy adventure it is striving to become. For one, it takes forever to get started in the misguided belief that a mostly off-screen romance between Arthur’s parents Tom Curry (Temura Morrison) and Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) matters. Aspects of the prologue could be more artfully incorporated into the story considering the movie’s ease with flashbacks. Also, his reluctance to get involved means the movie really doesn’t get going for forty minutes.
But once the Arthur and Mera get to Atlantis, the movie changes from the gray of the surface world to a colorful and weird world.
Threatening its odd beauty is Patrick Wilson as the angry King Orm. As much as casting Momoa as Arthur was the right choice, so was selecting Wilson as Orm. Though the character spends much of the movie as a power-mad black hat, he contains other shades; like his conflicted feelings about Arthur. If the film was more of a character piece, he might even be one the screen’s best supervillains. In fact, Wilson’s performance suggests a greater dimension to the character than the film really has time to convey. His stated purpose is a noble one even if his methods make him a ideal candidate for the Injustice Gang. That dissonance makes Orm a far more interesting character than he should be. Unfortunately, the film glosses over a lot of character beats and story details to get to the action.
And make no mistake, every action scene in Aquaman is great. Well-devised, shot and edited. Each makes great use of camera, CGI, and the various settings to give each a different and interesting energy. In particular, the Black Manta fight is tour de force action set piece with Arthur and Mera facing separate adversaries a few hundred feet apart. As one fight ebbs, the camera moves away to the action in the distance. It presents both characters as able fighters in a genuinely exciting way. Smartly, it is also the only fight in the film to use the technique, making it a particularly satisfying centerpiece. Other fights, like Atlanna’s brief skirmish at the beginning of the film and an early brawl between Arthur and Orm, treat the camera as a swimming observer circling the action. In some moments, it resembles an rotating camera in a video game, but it is surprisingly effective.
In fact, anytime the film leans into video game inspired visuals, it finds itself. Ludicrous elements like the armored sharks and sea-horse-like dragon creatures feel authentic and alive. Even the Black Manta fight feels like something out of Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted, but the film feels very much at ease with this aesthetic. And anytime the movie embraces a cartoon tone, it works.
Sadly, the cartoony tone does not extend to the budding relationship between Arthur and Mera. Instead of a broader fantasy romance one might see in a movie like The Mummy (1999), the two characters rarely get the time to banter. And when they do, it is strangely underplayed. Individually, the actors are great with Heard offering Mera a surprising strength and sincerity, but the romance feels like the most forced element of the plot.
Which means Aquaman is a great kids movie as it never gets too wrapped up in more mature themes like the romance or Orm’s real motivations. Also, its epic scope and more confident fantasy elements will appeal to the young and young-at-heart. But those looking for a deeper story or even good quips will be disappointed as the film is a visual feast paired with a table wine’s worth of dialogue.
Nonetheless, it also pulls off two seemingly impossible feats: it makes Aquman’s traditional costume work and gives Arthur’s seemingly goofy ability to talk to fish a satisfying and heroic reversal. That maybe enough to make Aquaman work for long-time fans as well as it works for children. But as it never fully commits to its broader, fantasy elements, it may leave some unsatisfied.
Aquaman is in theaters now.