Your enjoyment of director James Wan's Aquaman will likely be defined by your expectations. It’s far from a perfect film, but it's so joyful and fun that you’d have to be in a really bad mood not to find something that’ll make you involuntarily clip your hands. Whether it’s the stunning underwater sequences and locations, Nicole Kidman and Amber Heard’s scene-stealing performances or Jason Momoa’s never-ending swagger, this movie is a crowd-pleaser.
The story’s largely based on DC's New 52 reboot of Arthur Curry, as written by Geoff Johns, who worked with Wan on early story treatments. The film opens with the tragic love story of Arthur’s parents: After running away from an arranged marriage, Queen Atlanna (Kidman) encounters Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) in Maine, and they start a family. But after it becomes clear her erstwhile fiancé won't give up his pursuit, Atlanna voluntarily returns to the undersea kingdom of Atlantis to protect Tom and their son. There, Atlanna has another son named Orm, who grows up to become king of Atlantis -- and his half-brother's nemesis.
After the prologue, the story picks up shortly after the events of Justice League, after Arthur helped to defeat Steppenwolf, further confirming to Heard’s Mera that he, and not Orm, is the rightful heir to the Atlantean throne. Arthur spends most of the movie rejecting that destiny, having tried and failed as a teen to connect with his roots. His mother was killed by her husband once he discovered she’d had another son on land, and not only does Arthur hate the Atlanteans for that, he also blames himself. None of that stops him from acting like an oceanic superman, rescuing innocent people from the forces of evil under the sea, but he refuses the pleas of Mera to take up the mantle.
That position becomes untenable as his brother begins uniting/conquering the underseas kingdom in an effort to wipe out all life on land. While Orm isn’t entirely wrong to be bitter about the amount of waste and dangerous machinery humans have dumped into the ocean since the industrial revolution, he’s also a megalomaniac bent on domination for domination’s sake. Arthur eventually partners up with Mera to obtain the Trident of Atlantis, an ancient and powerful weapon that, if wielded by the “one true king,” represents unimaginable power.
As origin stories go, Aquaman gets to play in a couple of different sandboxes. Audiences have already seen Arthur in action in Justice League, so we’re spared much of him discovering who he is and what he can do. We get some nominal training sequences with Willem Defoe’s Vulko, but other than that, Aquaman is largely a superhero movie with a pretty satisfying Indiana Jones adventure tossed in. It’s his journey to self-acceptance and belonging despite being, almost literally, a fish out of water wherever he goes because of his mixed heritage. While the film leans toward being an environmental treatise, with Orm’s justifiable anger toward dirty, stupid humans, really, it’s about the displacement and search for a sense of belonging felt by so many multiracial people. That said, it’s worth noting that while Momoa is incredibly watchable, his chemistry with Heard is limp and his lighthearted charm is overused. That’s not to say you won’t get goosebumps every time he lands on a rock and slams down his trident, but be forewarned: He’s not the reason this movie succeeds.
Aside from Momoa being surrounded by actors like Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson, and the phenomenal Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as just the right amount of Black Manta, Aquaman works because it plays to its strengths. It’s overloaded with action, but it doesn’t feel that way, perhaps because the plot is pretty predictable and the dialogue is … not complex. Every time your eyes start to roll at either of those elements as Momoa gets lost in a monologue regarding how furious he is about his mother’s treatment at the hands of her own people, or the benefits of life on land, it’s cut short by a submarine rescue, an attack by King Orm or a hologram of Graham McTavish sending them to the Earth’s core. If you’re not into the action sequences (of which there are many, and given the nature of the camerawork, it's kind of dizzying), the stunning tableaux rendered by ILM are more than worth the price of admission.
Orm’s first attack on the mainland consists of massive tsunamis that intentionally spit back garbage and "warships" onto shores. If you're a conservationist, that idea alone probably has you fist-bumping. But the experience of watching Arthur and his father attempt to outrun one of the waves as they drive down a coastal road is truly scary, and hopefully the inspiration for a major thrill ride at the future Aquaman Water Park we so richly deserve. Beyond that, Arthur's Ring of Fire combat with Orm, he and Mera's journey to the Trench, and the final underwater conflict between the Atlanteans and the Brine are enough to make your jaw drop.
Again, this film is far from perfect, but at the very least it doesn't feel like its main reason for existence is to keep pace with Marvel Studios. It's still style over substance a lot of the time, but that style bears a real love for the source material, and that's what should be at the heart of every superhero film. Well, that and Jason Momoa's abs.
Directed by James Wan, Aquaman stars Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Amber Heard as Mera, Patrick Wilson as Ocean Master, Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta, Temuera Morrison as Thomas Curry, Dolph Lundgren as Nereus and Nicole Kidman as Queen Atlanna. The film opens on Dec. 21.