I had the opportunity to see Aquaman with my father while he was in town, adding to the long list of superhero movies the two of us have seen together. He’s the one who got me into comic books, and has therefore been my favorite superhero-movie-buddy for the majority of my life. Having seen so many superhero movies, I can say that Aquaman falls squarely in the middle in terms of quality. It overtakes the majority of DC films since 2013 (Wonder Woman being the exception, in my opinion) but falls short of some of the recent superhero-based films.
While Aquaman is the hero’s first standalone film, it benefits from having already established him and his powers in the previous Justice League (2017), both in-universe and to viewers. Therefore, exposition can be cut down to only what furthers the plot of this specific film, and the film is able to reach a little past the “coming to terms with superhero identity” that others feel compelled to include.
When the film opens, one might worry for a moment that it will be too similar to its Zack Snyder-directed predecessors– against a palate of greys, a woman (Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman) is splayed dramatically on the rocks as waves crash against her. However, it quickly becomes clear that this dramatacism is tongue-in-cheek, and although the film does continue to be melodramatic (“in the ocean, the sea carries our tears away”), it also includes genuinely fun fight scenes– hand-to-hand combat is used, along with weapons such as tridents and spears, and later on, seahorse steeds. The movie can be a bit over the top, but it acknowledges and embraces that. It isn’t worried about making sense– when underwater, the film doesn’t try to include telepathic communication, instead just having the characters speak to one another as if they’re on land. In all honesty, having a film that allows itself to be silly in this universe is refreshing after some of Snyder’s films.
The premise of the film isn’t groundbreaking– Arthur Curry, dubbed Aquaman by the media, must learn to reconcile is on-land upbringing with his Atlantean heritage and prevent an uprising against land-dwellers, who have been polluting the ocean and killings its creatures for many years. The uprising is to be lead by Aquaman’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), a smug blonde much more interested in power than any real justice against the humans on land. The sea-dwelling Mera (Amber Heard, sporting a painfully bright red wig) goes against her people to assist Aquaman, although it’s obvious that she’s the far more competent individual. Heard’s acting occasionally comes off as stiff, but nonetheless she’s a literal and figurative bright spot in the film, an independent, intelligent and strong person who, very honestly, probably puts too much stock in Aquaman and his ability to unite the worlds of land and sea. Nonetheless, it’s engaging to watch her fight the foot soldiers of Atlantis (wearing suits that are a hybrid of Power Rangers and Bionicles), pilot undersea ships, and experience land for the first time.
Another character that breathes life into the film is Black Manta (a compellingly charismatic Yahya Abdul-Manteen II). Watching this character rise from modern pirate to supervillain, driven by understandable grief and a desire for revenge, is some of the most fun I’ve had watching any comic book character come to life on the screen. Abdul-Manteen II does a fantastic job with this character, and it’s a shame this film doesn’t do more with him. The film’s version of this character alone is enough to hope for a sequel.
The film contains some delightful visuals that become more bright and compelling as the film progresses. CGI is utilized well for some fantastic scenes, especially late in the film– The Trench is the first that comes to mind. Species of humanoid seafolk are well-designed in this film, and through short shots of various royals, the viewer does get a good feel for the varying cultures of different undersea societies. The film’s costume design also helps with this; Atlantean foot soldiers aside, the characters are fitted with a diverse range of clothes and costumes that bring the universe to life.
Aquaman isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a fun one, with a coherent plot and competent cast. It contains several staple elements of superhero films, and although it doesn’t add anything innovative or groundbreaking to the genre, director James Wan has added an enjoyable entry to a the list of superhero films.