7 / 10
Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman
Amber Heard as Mera
Willem Dafoe as Vulko
Patrick Wilson as King Orm
Nicole Kidman as Atlanna
Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Manta
Temuera Morrison as Tom Curry
Ludi Lin as Captain Murk
Randall Park as Dr. Stephen Shin
Graham McTavish as King Atlan
The legacy of Aquaman is one of the most unique in comics and pop culture at large. A hero only two years younger than Batman (first debuting in late 1941), Arthur Curry went from back-up fodder in comics to a premiere Nazi fighter in the 1940s alone. After decades of Super Friendsreruns and Family Guy jabs though, Aquaman was an easy punchline for the world, despite the efforts of storytellers that gave him a hook for a hand or tried to amplify his implied badassery. The success of James Wan’s feature film version of the character isn’t built on trying to scrap or redefine Aquaman’s history but by leaning into it and embracing the goofiness.
Jason Momoa reprises his role of Aquaman from his glorified cameo in Batman v Superman and his amplified appearance in last year’s Justice League for a bona fide solo adventure. The movie trades the DCEU’s dower and apocalyptic corners for blossoming battles brimming with banter and bold artistic choices, some of which don’t always work. Momoa’s turn as the character never even feels like a man inhabiting a character that we all know on the page, it’s a man who has formed a role into his own personality. The Arthur Curry on screen isn’t Momoa putting on a mask and playing pretend, he’s an extension of the actor’s own history with his culture, life, and interests in entertainment, and for that it’s certainly a unique take on a superhero.
In the film, Momoa must come face to face with his destiny as an heir to the throne of Atlantis, a destiny that will see him going up against his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, in perhap the most hammy role of 2018). Wilson, a frequent collaborator with Wan, throws every scream he has at the audience with the kind of ernest performance that could easily be mistaken for poking fun at the genre. With Orm he’s pushed the limits of “comic book bad guy” to its most absurd and frankly, it works. Not everyone could pull off such a performance but Wilson is clearly having the time of his life in the role.
Joining Momoa for his journey in the film is Amber Heard’s Mera, who has the most subtle but poignant character moments of the film. Never is she simply the sidekick to Arthur or relegated to the sidelines as love-interest or damsel, she’s a capable warrior who is responsible for saving the title hero’s hide more times than the reverse. Heard brings a subdued performance to the table, a direct contrast to some of the other over-the-top characters in the film, but that ends up making her one of the most memorable pieces of the entire ensemble. On the other side of the conflict and the performance spectrum is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Arthur’s soon-to-be nemesis Black Manta. The character, nearly a requirement for an Aquaman solo movie, feels like a product of seeing super villains on film for your entire life. Abdul-Mateen II brings a ferociousness and intensity that works for that character’s specific arc, but feels out of place as it only matches some of the tones that Aquaman is juggling.
Overall though the film has a cadre of actors that make up an impressive ensemble including Willem Dafoe’s soft mentor Vulko, one that will not make audiences think of Norman Osborn at all; Dolph Lundgren’s subdued take on King Nereus, a role clearly born out of Wan’s love for Masters of the Universe; Temuera Morrison as Arthur’s loving and vulnerable father Tom Curry, who is the first anchor that brings us into Arthur’s story; and Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s badass mother Atlanna. Kidman, like Wilson, throws herself into a role that requires her to embrace some silly moments, but by treating them with sincerity and not mockery the movie is better for it.
With Aquaman, James Wan has crafted a movie that has the finger prints of all his tastes very visible and working in tandem. The bright and dazzling effects of an “alien” world from Star Wars? It’s there. The mentor ship role from The Karate Kid and the friendship from Top Gun? Check. Overt fantasy of Jules Verne? Present. The startling terror of Lovecratian horror? It might be the best part of the movie. In the end, Aquaman is a well blended smoothie of 1980s fare, which often works to its advantage but sometimes results in clumsy and clunky moments that pull you right out of the movie. In the same way the cartoons of your childhood would stop every few minutes to remind the children watching what the plot is, Aquaman gets hung up on heavy exposition to its detriment. In a movie with an octopus playing the drums and giant sea horses that are ridden into battle, we’re already sold, there’s no need to remind us what we’re watching for and what’s going on.
Aquaman is a successful movie that defies the odds. A film built on the premise of a character forgotten and ridiculed for decades, it works where other comic book movies fail by embracing the character’s past and doing it with gusto.