Look, up in the… sea! It’s a fish! It’s a man! It’s Aquaman! Faster than a speeding humpback, more powerful than a tsunami, able to leap whole submarines in a single bound, the guy who talks to fish is here to save the DCEU!
No doubt it is a strange world we live in when the film that makes or breaks DC Comics’ cinematic franchise is Aquaman. But, after a string of financially and critically disappointing films (with the exception of Wonder Woman) the future of the DCEU has been looking a little, er, fishy. Since last year’s Justice League flopped harder than a landed you-know-what, a whole lot has been riding on the success of Aquaman to turn the tide for the troubled franchise.
Happily, much like leading man Jason Momoa, Aquaman is enormously likeable. Director James Wan has taken great strides toward erasing the bad (and oddly metallic) taste of the grimdark Snyderverse from our collective consciousness, simply by intuiting that superhero films are supposed to be fun. With a lighthearted tone and a healthy dose of self-aware silliness, the result is an action-packed underwater spectacle that fully embraces its comic-book origins.
Speaking of origins, the rundown on Arthur’s parentage in the opening moments is one of the highlights of the film. Atlantean Queen Atlanna washes up on the New England coast to be rescued by humble lighthouse-keeper Tom Curry. Their romance is one of the most genuinely sweet elements of the film. But as fate would have it, Atlanna had been running away from a forced marriage and, after Arthur is born, realizes the only way to protect her family is to return to Atlantis.
Raised on land by his father, Arthur comes into his powers at a young age and is mentored by Atlantean advisor Vulko in the ways of his people. He embraces his dual heritage, but still has no interest in claiming his birthright as King of the Seven Seas. As member of the Justice League (it’s mentioned, just barely), he is willing to fight for both the Atlanteans and human worlds he belongs to.
The Arthur we met back in Justice League was a swaggering rock-star, knocking heads and slugging back whiskey (before throwing the half-empty bottle into the ocean; No wonder his eco-warrior brother thinks he’s bit of a dick). But for all of his plentiful tattoos and even more plentiful muscles, we find out that Arthur is actually an affable, easy-going guy who likes drinking beers with the locals and enjoys regular visits with his loveable Dad.
Enter Mera. The rebellious Atlantean princess is on a mission to convince Arthur to overthrow his half-brother King Orm, who is plotting to wage war against the surface world. Arthur is reluctant at first, but soon realizes he has little choice but to face his destiny and unite the seven Kingdoms of the sea.
A quest ensues, which sets Arthur and Mera on a globetrotting hunt for a powerful trident which can only be wielded by the true King of Atlantis. There’s a lot of setup and world-building integrated into this leg of story, but a fast-moving plot that flits through half a dozen dazzling locations keeps it from feeling bogged down by exposition. The resulting journey is something akin to Sword in the Stone meets Indiana Jones, and sees them plane-jumping into the Sahara desert and jumping across rooftops in Sicily.
The developing bond and partnership between Arthur and Mera is truly wonderful to watch. Their friendship is based on mutual respect and trust as they fight shoulder to shoulder throughout the many action sequences. Mera is on equal footing with Arthur at every turn, and comes out on top of virtually any other supposed ‘love interest’ in a modern superhero film. It would have been equally satisfying had they ended the film as friends and comrades rather than lovers.
Both of the villains well-drawn with relatable motives (Orm detests the surface world for their wanton destruction of natural resources, while Black Manta harbours a more personal vendetta against Aquaman). The fight sequences are high-energy and extremely well-choreographed, if perhaps overly recurrent. Two particular clashes (one a gladiatorial face-off, one full-on underwater Lord of the Rings-style battle with sea creatures) are absolutely spectacular. The top-notch visual effects and CGI create a breathtaking undersea Kingdom, which is both beautiful and frightening.
Despite being under a great deal of pressure to be more super than Superman, better than Batman and as wonderful as Wonder Woman, Aquaman manages to deliver. It’s a perfect blend of fantasy, action and world-building. Most importantly, it offers characters worth caring about, ensuring that fans will look forward to spending more time in the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, with renewed interest in future instalments of the DCEU.