Aquaman’s solo adventure arrives in theaters this week, bringing some incredible spectacle to the big screen even when the story struggles to keep up. Come inside for our full review of James Wan’s latest!
While we got a taste of Jason Momoa’s underwater superheroics in last year’s Justice League, this month we’re getting his solo story thanks to James Wan. Equal parts origin story and globe-trotting epic, the film is as exhilarating as it can be frustrating. It’s odd in that there are so many parts that feel beyond my expectations, while being held back by some poor pacing and a story that needed tightening. Let’s dive in a little deeper (heh):
Despite seeing Arthur Curry in action already, and even meeting Mera, Aquaman is still very much an origin story. There are flashbacks to his childhood and the story is focused on Arthur fully embracing his Atlantean heritage; coming to terms with the idea of being a hero to both of the worlds he’s a part of.
As such, we do touch upon some typical origin story tropes, but many of these are subverted by the idea that Aquaman has been acting as a hero in OUR world (the land) for a while. He’s already established as this hero, which means we get to skip out on some of the origin cliches, and the ones we do come across feel different enough to escape notice.
Arthur’s half-brother Orm, played by Patrick Wilson, is the King of Atlantis and seeks to unite the other kingdoms of ocean dwellers under his command in order to launch a full scale attack against the surface world. Hoping to avert such a war, Princess Mera (Amber Heard) seeks out Arthur Curry to try and convince him to come to Atlantis and embrace his birthright to the throne. Aquaman is adamantly opposed to the idea, but when Orm launches a “warning shot” on the surface he feels compelled to help.
As you imagine, things don’t go smoothly and Arthur’s outsider status puts him in immediate danger at the hands of his brother, who’s desperate to solidify his claim to the throne. After a tense showdown, Mera and Arthur embark on a journey to recover the lost trident of the first Atlantean king which would imbue him with more power/control over the ocean. Their quest takes them across the globe to hidden cities, fighting off the merciless Black Manta, and finding out the truth behind legends.
All the while, it’s a race against the clock as Orm continues to expand his army and brings about a massive battle under the sea in order to gain full control. Arthur must find the trident and prove himself worthy to be king before that war can spill out onto the surface world.
In a lot of ways, it’s a MacGuffin type of movie (kinda like Indiana Jones), but mixed in with the epic feel of a fantasy war movie; there are some serious Lord of the Rings vibes going on in this film. When you add the origin story into the mix, however, things begin to feel a bit jumbled.
Aquaman feels like a Saturday morning cartoon brought to life, with all the good (and bad) that analogy entails. It’s great in that James Wan fully, 110% commits, to the aesthetic and feels like he goes whole hog with the comic book-y elements of the story. This is evident in the way the battles unfold with mounted great white sharks and battle seahorses. Not everything lands and some stuff comes off a little too cheesy (Orm is a straight up, over the top, 80s cartoon villain) but there are no half-measures taken in the film’s style. It was pretty refreshing to see.
I like to look at the positive side of things, so I’m going to break down the things Aquaman nails:
Characters/Performances - For the most part, the performances in Aquaman are pretty solid. Jason Momoa oozes charisma and charm throughout the film, managing to be humorous and endearing. Patrick Wilson’s villainous Orm was a lot of fun (if a bit overbearing at times), Black Manta’s portrayal was instantly engaging, and in my opinion Amber Heard absolutely stole the show throughout the film.
Even minor characters like Dolph Lundgren’s King Nereus and Willem Defoe’s Vulko go all out in their representations. For the most part, they all stick fairly closely to the characters you know and love from the comics, giving long time fans something fun to watch, while still being open for newcomers.
Visually Dazzling - You may have gathered this from the trailers already, but Aquaman is just a gorgeous looking film. The city of Atlantis is bright and colorful, with attention to detail that makes it feel genuinely alive. The costumes and tech get similar attention to detail and instantly grab your attention. Couple this with the really neat design work on the creatures (like the Trench, or the Lobster-esque warriors) and just about every scene of this movie has some stunning eye candy.
Incredible Action - One of my first comments after leaving the theater (which you can find here), is that James Wan absolutely needs to do more action films. Aquaman is FILLED with some ridiculously awesome set pieces that are both fast-paced and epic in scope. I legitimately lost count of the times I muttered, “Holy shit,” to myself in the theater.
From the one-on-one fight scenes to the full-scale battles, James Wan brings something crazy to each sequence. More so, the underwater fights take advantage of the three dimensional nature of being underwater and feel like something we haven’t really seen before. There’s a uniqueness to the underwater action that makes it all the more awe-inspiring and sets the film apart from other DC movies so far.
What Doesn’t Work
Aquaman has a lot of visual prowess and filled with some jaw dropping spectacle, but for all the eye candy, there are some problems that really hold it back.
Bloated Script/Poor Pacing - There’s no real reason for this film to be nearly two and a half hours long. There are plenty of cuts that could have been made to tighten up the overall story, and it feels like these things could have been caught at the script stage.
Several scenes are in there to provide big exposition dumps (which could have been handled significantly better), and completely hits the brakes on the film’s momentum when they arrive. One scene in particular with Black Manta stands out as wholly unnecessary, where he figures out putting together his iconic suit.
Is it cool? Sure, it’s kinda fun to see how it comes about, but considering the scene proceeding it and what follows later, audiences could have easily figured out what happened without needing the exposition of that scene. Don't get me wrong, Manta in general was really well done and I liked the arc he had, but that’s among a few other odd scene choices which don’t move the story forward.
Some Poor Performances - Overall, I think the cast did a pretty good job with the script they had. Even in the good performances, however, there are some cringeworthy moments and a high cheese factor. Frankly, I don’t blame the actors here, there’s only so much you can do with some of the lines they’re given.
That said, the actors they had for the younger versions of Arthur Curry (specifically the teenage one) are just not good. I mean, line deliveries so bad they were laughable and took me entirely out of the story. It’s all the more jarring considering the natural feeling banter between Momoa and Heard are often interspersed with these flashbacks.
Shallow - There are a LOT of elements and story points crammed into this movie, and ultimately it feels like too much for one film. While all the converging plot points feel satisfactorily wrapped up by the time the credits rolled, there’s not enough time given for better character moments.
As such, while the action is epic in feel, it lacks any emotional weight and certain aspects of the plot don’t feel like the natural flow of character’s progression. It’s a lot of flash without a lot of depth, which is kind of a bummer. There are some decent themes about embracing yourself for who you are and doing the right thing regardless, but they’re only surface deep and won’t leave a lasting impression.