One of the biggest complaints about the DCEU has been that no one seems to be having any fun; not the directors, not the actors, least of all the characters. Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and to a lesser extent Suicide Squad, were all mired in the post-Frank Miller DC grimdark. Yes, Batman’s all spooky and gloomy, but Superman? To quote Mark Aaron James’ great song “Aquaman’s Lament” — man, that cat can fly. Big Blue’s not supposed to be grimdark. He’s supposed to be standing on the lunar surface, straightening out Neil Armstrong’s flag and ordering beef bourguignon while rescuing space kittens out of moon trees. The DCEU Murderverse trend changed a little when Warner Bros. wisely tried to do post-production course corrections with reshoots for Suicide Squad, and later when Wonder Woman dropped with a film that was fun as well as epic. While Justice League had the kind of schizophrenia that only a big, troubled Hollywood production can have (with the visions of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon battling it out) , one of the standouts of that film was Jason Momoa’s “Aquabro” characterization of the once and future King of Atlantis. And people, get ready for 2 hours of beer-drinking, shark-riding, punch-happy fun.
Aquaman is SOOOOO many movies in one. Borrowing a lot from the “New 52” Aquaman relaunch, there’s elements of Splash, ’90s Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, Avatar, Black Panther, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and so much more. It’s bright and colorful in a way that no DCEU movie has been before (seriously, it makes even the Themyscira scenes in Wonder Woman look pedestrian), like a comic book literally exploded onto the screen. Atlantis is a city right out of a Roger Dean prog rock album cover, or a 3rd grader’s Lisa Frank notebook. It captures the essence of a comic book so well, you expect that the post-credits stinger to be Jason Momoa selling Hostess Fruit Pies. James Wan brings a fantasy world to life in a way that makes you wonder why Snyder’s Krypton or Gotham were so… perfunctory. Batman and Superman fighting in bathroom? Come on. Here, Wan makes Momoa and Patrick Wilson’s Ocean Master fight riding a hippocampus and a mosasaur, while hurling lava bombs and tridents at each other. It’s just crazy fun.
And this is one of the more talky scenes of the movie.
I mean, even the “dark” stuff is fun. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta is between Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger and Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya on the road to revenge, and there’s plenty of space where Snyder’s particular slow-mo, screaming “Marthaaaaaaaa!”, tears-in-the-rain ethos could have rooted, but it didn’t, and in the relationship between King Orm and Aquaman, there’s actual pathos and some heart. There isn’t the complexity of characterization that’s going to require a bunch of time to flesh out –Aquaman’s the hero, his Dad is jus’ folks with a broken heart, Willem Dafoe’s Vulko is broad combination of Sean Connery’s Ramirez from Highlander and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, and so on. The only one who really keeps you guessing as to their motivations is King Orm, and we really don’t spend much time with it (I’ll be talking about King Orm later this week in a column titled “Orm Has a Point”). Amber Heard’s Mera is really great, and honestly, with almost as much screen time as Jason Momoa, the movie should almost be titled “Aquaman and Mera”. She hits all the right notes, both as a kick-ass heroine and romantic interest. This is a Jason Momoa’s movie though, and he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. If you’ve ever believed in the Robot Chicken version of Aquaman as a dorky put-upon loser, this will change your view. Literally no one will accuse this Aquaman of being useless — especially after lifting a Russian Alfa-class attack submarine out of the water.
Mera is not here for your misogyny.
If you wondering why I keep referencing OTHER movies when talking about THIS movie? Well you’ve seen all this before, which sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. You’ve seen it all before, but have you seen it in two hours tied together with the same narrative thread? No. No you have not, and that’s the beauty of it. If you don’t like the film, don’t worry, it’s literally going to change genres in 15 minutes. I’ve seen it twice already and I never checked my watch once. It’s basically a dark ride at a theme park where you can see the wires but who the hell cares? You just saw a Jason Momoa punch a guy with another guy. It’s a comic book movie that isn’t ashamed of its roots, and its about damn time.
Black Manta was not able to pull off this combo in the movie.
Tomorrow on Nerdvana’s extended Aquaman coverage, we’ll talk about the ocean science of Aquaman. Spoiler alert: THIS MOVIE DOES NOT SCIENCE.