For years — decades even — wider popular culture and even embedded comics fans have been strangely unanimous concerning their opinions over one superhero: Aquaman. It seems that for the longest time, the only people who were willing to give the character the benefit of the doubt were fans who had already given him a chance, and in so doing, discovered an underwater world within the DC Comics Universe that had a legacy of wonderful storytelling, encapsulating ideas like those found in regal Arthurian legends, and even horror stories about the unknowns just waiting to be found in the deep.
Director James Wan had a Herculean task in front of him: make clear that Aquaman is just as worthy of a major superhero film as his DC and Marvel brethren, that he’s not a joke, and that his stories can take audiences to places that they likely have never imagined before. Even though there are certainly stumbles here and there, Wan largely succeeds in crafting a film that accomplishes all these things, while still feeling incredibly authentic and true to the legacy of the DC Comics icon it’s charged with representing.
To put it more simply, Aquaman is a hell of a movie: it’s surprising, fun, engaging, beautiful, epic — what’s truer to the original meaning of the word than the ocean? — and helps salvage the fragmented shared universe of DC films thus far, with a second firm leg to stand on after Wonder Woman.
Taking place sometime after the events of Justice League, Aquaman uses the traits of the character established by last year’s team-up film to move through time and relate the story of Arthur Curry’s life: one of fragmentation, attempted altruism, and destiny. We learn about Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, who met lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), a meeting that resulted in mutual love and, eventually, a son.
When Atlantis comes to the surface in an effort to force Atlanna back to her kingdom and into an arranged marriage, she leaves Tom and Arthur for the sake of their own safety. Years later, Arthur has forged the beginning of his own legend as the man referred to as the mysterious “Aquaman.” We pick things up not long after Arthur united with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to stop Steppenwolf in Justice League.
After Arthur’s younger half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) attempts to start a war with the surface world and consolidate the power of all underwater kingdoms under the legendary title of “Ocean Master,” Arthur is drafted by Princess Mera (Amber Heard) and Atlantean royal vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) to challenge his brother for the throne of Atlantis.
Of all the DC Comics movies released since Man of Steel, Aquaman likely stands as the most visually inventive through the nature of the world that it strives to establish. That’s not to say Themyscira, as seen in Wonder Woman, is a slouch by any means, but at least it had the advantage, from a design perspective, of being on land. Atlantis and the other ocean kingdoms just function differently because they’re underwater. James Wan and production designer Bill Brzeski certainly went all-in in terms of both embracing and celebrating the idea that they were creating an underwater kingdom. It’s exceptional work all around.
When it comes to the performances on display, some are better than others. The true standout and the most defining performance in the film, thankfully, rests with its lead: Jason Momoa charts an emotional path that sees him mature from the “bro” we saw in Justice League to someone who begins to become intimately familiar with his limitations, and the responsibility that will be required for him to ascend to his destined role as Atlantis’ King. Much of this comes from the writing, of course, but Momoa’s performance should not be undersold: he fully comes into his own as the fabled Sea King and his path is rightfully the star of the film’s performances.
While some have accused Patrick Wilson of being miscast as King Orm/Ocean Master, to this writer he seemed to feel most at-home in his role. The myopia that the screenplay imbues him with is only slightly tempered by the responsibility he feels for the throne of Atlantis and the quest for power is well-embodied by Wilson, especially when he puts on the iconic helmet of Ocean Master. Amber Heard as Mera is, of course, striking in her beauty, but also brings a closeness to Atlantean mythology that proves her to be a great straight foil to the more free-wheeling Arthur we see in the film’s first half.
Supporting roles are filled out excellently, with Temuera Morrison as Tom Curry, Nicole Kidman as Queen Atlanna and Willem Dafoe as Vulko fulfilling their roles very effectively. It’s also hard to relate the sheer joy that this comic book fan felt when the film reveals its faithfully-realized vision of iconic Aquaman foe Black Manta, since that was a day many fans never thought would ever happen.
Overall, Aquaman is a shot in the arm for the beleaguered DC Extended Universe. Justice League may have been a mess by most conceivable metrics, though one that this writer enjoyed, but the trifecta of that film, Wonder Woman and now Aquaman stands as a very solid baseline by which future filmmakers can enter the DC Comics Universe and go in virtually any direction desired. Aquaman only briefly embraces prior continuity, but the fact it drew that thread even in a subtle way makes the foundation for future exploitations with these visions of the characters very strong.
Be that as it may, Aquaman is not a good film just because it keeps the shared universe alive: it’s a good film because of the wealth of its own merits it brings to the screen. James Wan and company stuck to the concept of the character and created a film that, through and through, is an unabashed, awesome Aquaman movie.
That deserves celebration all on its own and it makes it well worth your time on your next visit to a movie theater.