Last year’s Justice League was a decidedly mixed bag that drew a wide range of reactions. After a couple of rewatches, I pretty much stand by my review of it — it’s a flawed, rushed, messy film that still manages to entertain for the most part. But one of the unquestionable highlights of the film was Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman, a brawny, somewhat goofy heavyweight of a hero with a somewhat uncertain moral compass. It was a fairly radical departure from the comic book’s original incarnation, and it’s for the better. Momoa was terrific in the role, and even though it’s peculiar that the DCEU is doing things in reverse, we’ve finally arrived at his time to shine in a solo film.
Aquaman takes those elements of weirdness and incorporates Momoa’s grizzly charisma into one of the most unusual, bonkers-silly superhero films this side of a Deadpool movie. It’s not nearly the self-referential slapstick fest that film is, but instead, it races breathlessly into a wild, sometimes incoherent but often exhilarating adventure. The film splits its time between gorgeous international locations and an eye-popping neon CGI underwater empire somewhere that’s too ridiculous to really even comprehend. Everyone leans hard into that universe, selling the living shit out of each goofy second. This is a film with some serious actors, too — Nicole Kidman as Curry’s Atlantean mother, Willem Dafoe as his mentor, veteran Temuera Morrison as his father, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta, and Patrick Wilson as his half-brother and chief antagonist, Orm (aka - wait for it - Ocean Master). And none of them seem to give a hot damn that they’re dressed in Day-Glo armor and talking like they’re at a DC Comics/Ren Faire mashup.
It’s absolutely hilariously dumb and strange and goddamnit, fun. Aquaman is everything I kind of wish the DCEU had been all along, a reckless and funny balls-out adaptation of the property that dumps all the grim darkness of the previous films and instead takes all the natural charm of its lead and builds a perfectly fitting world around him. Amber Heard does a great job of playing an eye-rolling straight-woman to his oceanic wild man. Her Mera is a princess of one of the hidden underwater nations, but she’s also a fearless, take-no-shit, give-no-fucks fighter that is a great counterpart to Momoa. In fact, the cast is great overall, all of them buying into the inherent silliness of the film and having no trouble delivering every increasingly cheese-laden line of dialogue with dramatic aplomb. Kidman often seems to be having the most fun, in no small part because she also gets to kick wholesale ass when need be, and it looks like she’s having a blast doing it.
The film teeters precariously, though, and when it suffers most is when it tips too far into its fantastical elements. Not the worldbuilding, necessarily, but there’s only so much discussion of magical tridents and strange Atlantean customs and worlds and people that one can take before it becomes unnecessarily dense. Aquaman is at its best when Momoa is just being his own ridiculous, brash self. The character is a self-described blunt instrument and while the film tries to inject some gravitas (as well as a fairly compelling environmental message), it’s the most engaging when he’s being just that — a handsome, swaggering adventure hero (yes, there is a solid amount of shirtlessness) who doesn’t think too much and punches his way out of most challenges.
But it manages to avoid stumbling too hard, and its hilariously bananas style affords it far more goodwill than it probably deserves. This is a film that features Dolph Lundgren in shiny armor and pink hair, riding a giant seahorse, for fuck’s sake. How seriously can you possibly take it? Its greatest strengths are twofold — an attractive, engaging cast that seems to love the hell out of what they’re doing, and a strong sense of self-awareness. Sure, there’s fun dialogue and good acting, but James Wan’s direction seems like a man at the wheel of a car that’s going far too fast around the curves, but he’s laughing his ass off the whole time anyway. Aquaman breathlessly rounds those curves and arrives at its destination with a few dents and a rattling engine, but goddamn if it wasn’t fun getting there.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.