Holding the weight of past disappointments, you almost feel that ‘Aquaman’ not only has to be good, it has to be great. And on that basis it feels kind of unfair for a film to have to be a knockout to make up for sins of the past, making for an almighty challenge few films have to face. And does it reach that challenge? Short form answer yes - not always, but yes. ‘Aquaman’ is imperfect undeniably, as it struggles with pacing issues and certain narrative threads. But where these issues arise from are often overlooked as its inherent strengths such as its epic scope of spectacle, beautifully shot action and charismatic cast constantly win you back. Messy as it can be, I can’t say I wasn’t grinning the whole time.
One year after the events of ‘Justice League’, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’) is lying low and saving people on the side. He knows that he has vocation to visit the underwater civilisation of Atlantis, but being of half-human and half-Atlantean descent he has always felt like an outsider, despite being of loyal lineage to the underwater throne. However, he is called into action when his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson, ‘The Conjuring’) has his sights set on bringing the wrath of the seven seas to the surface world for the pollution they have afflicted on the oceans. Destined to stop his power-hungry brother, Arthur teams up with the warrior Mera (Amber Heard, ‘The Danish Girl’) to retrieve the Trident of Atlan, claim the the throne and embrace the title of Aquaman.
One thing that must be known before diving into ‘Aquaman’ is that it embraces the mythology’s lunacy almost from the beginning. Director James Wan ('Saw', ‘The Conjuring 1 & 2’) fully realises the strangeness so tied to Aquaman’s long-running lore, that he has created a vibrantly epic Saturday morning cartoon that fully relishes in its largely campy tone. This will be of some division for audiences as to whether they can embrace a tone that is both absurd and zany by choice. But if you’re willing to buy into this, it is an impressively fun ride that feels different from most comic book movie offerings.
A lot of the ingenuity stems from the absolute spectacle the film effortlessly imbues. ‘Aquaman’ is a lot of movie, with every facet illuminating such scope and magnitude it is an absolute Herculean visceral feast. The city of Atlantis is brimming with such colourful design, sea creatures beautifully rendered and unique and underwater action that offers some of the most visually interesting action set pieces of the year. The action as a whole is shot beautifully, with wide and fluid camera work providing some terrifically created fight sequences between Aquaman and various undersea foes. When the film moves into its final battles of undersea armies combating with each other, it could rival ‘Lord of the Rings’ for sheer audacity to the extent that my mouth dropped throughout the finale. In a time where some superhero films are bereft of scope, ‘Aquaman’ delivers some of the most satisfying and ambitious action in recent memory.
And beneath the rollicking pulp adventure, the film wears an earnestness and heart as loveable as the titular hero. Criticised previously for its thematically dark approach, ‘Aquaman’ highlights a continued shift in tone for the DC universe, and benefits from instilling an endearingly hopeful tone that speaks best to what makes the hero such a enduring figure of our mythology. As for all the wildly weird places ‘Aquaman’ goes, Wan knows to do this with a wink and smirk attitude that fits naturally with the story’s world. This is equally in part to a charismatic cast who look to be having just as much as fun as the audience. Momoa is terrific as the man with undeniable physical presence but with a sweetness at his core, while Heard makes for a startling co-lead as Mera.
As for all the wildly weird places ‘Aquaman’ goes, director James Wan knows to do this with a wink and smirk attitude that fits naturally with the story’s world.
But for all that ‘Aquaman’ does right, it comes at the cost of being sometimes too busy for its own good, and with so much thrown at you, the pacing suffers and narrative threads aren’t allowed to develop as it gets lost amidst other story concerns. The script is overstuffed, meaning some scenes are rushed through without haste, while other sequences which could be trimmed seem to drag on for longer than needed. Structure-wise, the film at times runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight, and a lot of scenes which could have a better sense of awe and or emotional resonance are lost due to the affliction of said pacing issues. The film illustrates some very odd musical choices, additionally. Although, the largest concern of this is that character development does tend to suffer. Patrick Wilson is terrific as King Orm, but we don’t get to know too much about him due to conflicting plot threads taking precedent, meaning the chances of depth for his character are diminished, with the role saved by his physical presence. The film is very clunky, and while never such a deterrent for the film to be actively bad, it does get frustrating with its sense of polish.
All and all, what ‘Aquaman’ does right is able to outweigh its negatives. James Wan has created a sprawling and bold cinematic telling of one of DC’s greatest heroes, and has created another step to the redemption of DC films. The film sparkles with creativity and B-movie sensibilities to illustrate great humour and heart with Jason Momoa leading with ease. You revel in the majesty of Atlantis, the awe of the action, and above all else want to see more stories told in this spectre of the DC universe. Flawed but entertaining, it's hard not to be swept up by the sheer effort of ‘Aquaman’, as well as the fun it has with such strange material from one of the craziest characters in our pop culture lexicon.