Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Dolph Lundgren
The DCEU badly needs a win. To say the DCEU has had peaks and troughs is something of an understatement. Despite, for my part, ‘Man of Steel’ being far stronger than the wider consensus says, and ‘Wonder Woman’ being as universally acclaimed as it is, the DCEU is badly trying to course correct after the mixed reception received on ‘Batman v Superman,’ and the genuinely shambolic efforts of ‘Justice League’ and ‘Suicide Squad.’ It needs a film to reunite DC fans everywhere that convinces them the DCEU could be a success. I think ‘Aquaman’ could well be that film.
Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa stars as Arthur “Aquaman” Curry, a human-Atlantean hybrid with super strength and a swimming ability not too far behind that of Michael Phelps. Living his life as a metahuman living amongst us, Arthur forgoes the secret identity schtick, openly embraces being Aquaman, and spends his time saving people from various nautical disasters. When Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother, stakes claim to the throne and threatens an Atlantean takeover of the world, Arthur must return to his true home and claim the throne that is rightfully his.
I’m going to cut to the chase. ‘Aquaman’ is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in months. I’ve seen some terrific films in the last year, even some genuinely all-time great superhero films like ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,’ but nothing compared to ‘Aquaman.’ As the film escalates towards its inevitable, CGI-tastic battle scene, I found myself actively cheering the action on screen. It forced various exclamations that basically said, in umpteen different ways, “this is so cool.” Because that’s what James Wan, the stellar filmmaker behind films like ‘Saw’, ‘The Conjuring,’ and ‘Furious 7,’ managed to do. He made Aquaman cool. He made the guy who has been the joke of DC for years and known as “the one who can speak to fish” cool.
What really works for ‘Aquaman’ is its cast. It boasts a terrific ensemble, and no matter how ridiculous it all is if you really look at it, everyone is all in on their characters, embracing the ridiculousness of it all, and just having a great time with it. There’s a chemistry amongst every major player, from Arthur and Orm, to Arthur and Mera (Amber Heard), to Arthur and Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to Mera and Vulko, and to Orm and Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), that makes the film work. All the different relationships between the characters are, admittedly pretty blatantly, clear and their motivations are presented well so that everyone knows where they stand as the tensions mount into the third act. The ‘will-they-won’t-they’ dynamics, the rivalries, the father-and-son relationships, it’s all well thought-out and executed extremely well, thanks largely to the great cast.
Where the film does have flaws – and believe me, it has its flaws – is largely down to its dialogue. Despite the well-fleshed out relationships I mentioned above, the conversations are about as on-the-nose as it comes. Characters explicitly describe their emotions and plans in every line of dialogue, shoving in corny, superhero focused one-liners to raise an obvious moral question for Arthur to ponder for 20 minutes. It’s blunt, but it’s serviceable; there’s no room for subtext. But then again, this is fucking Aquaman. At one point, sharks are used as surfboards. Subtext left the writer’s room 27-minutes into Day One. And that’s okay.
The average cinema-goer goes to a superhero film for the action. You can claim all you want that people live for the interpersonal drama you find in the MCU, but a superhero film lives and dies by its action sequences. ‘Aquaman’ raises the bar for what a superhero film’s action scenes should look like. They’re the cleanest, best choreographed, and best shot action scenes since probably ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’ In the first 10 minutes, there’s a very cool fight scene involving Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) in a living room that’s a long-take, one smooth shot in which all 3 enemies are vanquished in expert fashion as the camera swirls around the room. At that moment I knew we were in good hands, but that was just a taster.
There are a lot of nice little action sequences throughout the film, all of which are well done, but there are two stand-outs: Sicily and The Battle of the Trench. Sicily, for starters, includes a glorious long-take following a Atlantean battering ram crashing through 15 apartment walls as it’s the fastest way to Mera who is running along the rooftops, while simultaneously Arthur is being chased by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the film’s sadly underused but encouraging secondary villain, with various moments for combat thrown in, an exploding church bell, and Arthur using a literal ball and chain as a weapon. At one point, the camera shows Arthur’s fight and zooms across the rooftops to catch up with Mera, mere minutes before she creatively uses red motherfucking wine as a weapon. Just thinking about this scene again brings a smile to my face. It’s chaos in its most glorious form.
The climactic Battle of the Trench is, thankfully, a worthy capper on a terrifically fun time. I can’t go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but this scene is the main cause of my exclamations of disbelief I mentioned earlier. Some of the moments on screen are wildly creative, they’re moments that will stick with you for months, because it’s a battle on the same scale as that of Helm’s Deep in ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ only this time it involves sharks with freakin’ laser beams attached to their heads, giant crocodiles, giant crabs and lobsters, and there’s even the closest thing to an actual kaiju. It’s not a case of Wan throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks here; everything sticks. The final 30 minutes of ‘Aquaman’ is the best climax to a 2018 film this side of ‘Hereditary.’
‘Aquaman’ is fantastic. I can forgive the flaws of its screenplay when the action is this satisfying and this impressive. It has charismatic performances, a fantastic soundtrack (‘Aquaman’’s theme is the best superhero theme since ‘Wonder Woman’, for everything the DCEU is doing wrong, it’s nailing the music), and stellar direction and cinematography. It’s one of the most bombastic, energetic, insane films of the year, and it deserves your attention.
Give me more ‘Aquaman.’ I want so much more ‘Aquaman.’