clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Aquaman goes for broke and lands somewhere between overstuffed marine opera and cheesy comic book fun

Aquaman has everything: feral Nicole Kidman, kaiju-sized English-speaking crustaceans, boring exposition, salty manes, and a charismatic hero.

Momoa Aquaman
Jason Momoa as Aquaman
Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Jason Momoa’s hair is a force of nature, a fantastic anomaly of power, as if forged by the fury of the sea and thunder that has been documented in Greek myth.

His mane, wet, is the color of dark wood, glimmering with beams of honey, and falls just past where his barn door shoulders stop flexing. It moves with accuracy and perpetual motion, like a flag — a flag that represents a country of beauty and muscle — caught in a majestic breeze.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Jason Momoa’s hair because Aquaman is two hours and 22 minutes long.

That’s a particularly long amount of time to spend with any superhero, aquatic or otherwise, and perhaps a little too long, considering how much this movie could have been slimmed down and streamlined.

Momoa and his hair are part of a gruff, leather-scented Aquaman rebrand that was first seeded in Warner Bros.’s 2017 flop Justice League. The character was actually one of the better things about that disaster of a film; prior to Momoa’s turn as the undersea hero, Aquaman a.k.a. Arthur Curry existed largely as a joke in mainstream pop culture. After all, talking to fish and having super swimming capabilities — the trademarks the hero is known for — aren’t particularly helpful in the kind of movie-defining superhero fights that typically take place on land.

But Momoa’s Arthur Curry, in Warner Bros.’s vision, is ruder, saltier, more physical, and more tattooed than his comic book counterpart. And when Momoa made his debut in Justice League, his character’s gruff new gimmick offered a nice contrast with the goofiness of Aquaman’s fish-whispering superpower, especially when the jokes came at the expense of tough Curry himself. Whenever Aquaman appeared onscreen, his presence usually led to a fun time.

Thankfully, the same can be said about his endlessly entertaining new solo film, in spite of how overextended it is.

Directed by James Wan — the master of high-octane nightmare fuel like Insidious, The Conjuring and SawAquaman contains moments of pure joy, stylish fight-sequence hairography, and unabashed fidelity to cheese and fantasy. It’s hard not to smile at the creatures of the ocean’s “Brine Kingdom,” which is full of kaiju-sized, English-speaking marine crustaceans that do battle with Volkswagen-sized pincers.

Carried by Momoa’s natural charisma, the movie’s underwater charm offensive does a lot to smooth over its ill-advised attempt to cram way too much into one movie — even if it still stumbles while trying to juggle mythbuilding, romance, adventure, world travel, death, betrayal, riddles and puzzles, father-son bonding, Greek mythology, Julie Andrews as a Kraken-like creature, and multiple villains (including Julie Andrews as a Kraken-like creature).

It’s as if someone told Wan and team that Aquaman would be the title character’s one and only shot at a solo movie, and they made sure to go for broke.

But when you already have Momoa as a swarthy underwater superhero who can talk to fish, you don’t necessarily need an especially complex or winding story. In the end, the crowdedness of Aquaman almost takes all the fun out of a movie about a mariner hero, his gorgeous hair, and a bunch of giant crabs.

Aquaman smashes at least five different movies and so much exhausting exposition into a single film

With Aquaman, the film’s credited screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, and Will Beall have created a fantasy adventure story that winks at the idea of the Sword in the Stone and King Arthur, as their spin on Arthur Curry struggles to become the king that Atlantis deserves.

The movie begins where Justice League ends, with Arthur having just saved the world with his super-powered pals; now, like Wonder Woman did in her own movie, he must reckon with his own past. But unlike director Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, which presents a straightforward origin story as an extended flashback, Aquaman mixes flashbacks with the present as a new threat to Atlantis rises.

The flashback scenes detail how Curry’s dad (Temuera Morrison) met his mom, and how his mom, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), protected him — a half-Atlantean and half-human — by sacrificing herself and keeping her son’s identity secret from her kingdom.

Meanwhile, in the present, King Orm (Patrick Wilson) — Arthur’s half-brother, born to Queen Atlanna and a different father — wants to make Atlantis great again. Unhappy with commanding the surf, Orm wants to take the turf as well, since land-dwellers are threatening the world’s oceans by polluting them and killing sea creatures.

And while that’s a noble cause, because humans have really messed up the oceans, there’s also a power grab in play, as Orm aims to become “Ocean Master” and command the various kingdoms of the sea in order to start a war on land.

Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall are fascinated, at least for a little while, by the idea of whether humans are worth saving — a theme that’s arisen in superhero stories time and again, but was particularly well explored in the aforementioned Wonder Woman. What is so great about humanity when it just chews up our world? What parts of it are worth defending? Certainly not the “killing of innocent sea creatures” part.

That question alone would have been enough for one movie. But Aquaman is nowhere near done yet.

After a warning sent by Orm, Arthur, realizing the risk that King Orm’s sea war poses, is totally on board with breaking up Orm’s “Ocean Master” campaign. But first he has to find a magic trident, long believed to be a fairy-tale, to defeat Orm, since Orm has ostensibly spent his entire life training underwater for a moment like this, unlike Arthur, who has been enjoying surface life.

Arthur also has to deal with a secondary villain who is mad that him for having killed his father in an ocean rescue.

But wait, there’s still more.

To become “Ocean Master,” Orm has to unite the many kingdoms of the sea, which means diplomatically (and sometimes by other means too) convincing all of them, including the aforementioned giant crab civilization known as the Brine Kingdom, to join him.

Meanwhile, Arthur is on the hunt for that trident — but his quest is a lot more complicated than it seems. He finds himself falling in love with Mera (Amber Heard), an underwater princess betrothed to Orm. And lucky for Arthur, Mera feels the same way, giving up her highborn birthright to marry ornery Orm, and choosing instead to travel with Arthur to the Sahara Desert and Sicily to find clues regarding the whereabouts of the super trident.

Arthur feels terrible about his mom’s sacrifice and the way the Atlanteans mistreated his mother, blaming her for deserting her underwater country. But it should be noted that, even with this kind of suffering at hand, crying in the ocean sounds kind of fun.

“Where I come from, the sea carries away our tears,” Atlanna tells Arthur’s father early in the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a long story about Willem Dafoe’s Vulko, a trusted adviser to the Atlantean throne, and how Vulko trained Arthur. That’s in addition to a subplot about Atlantis’s immigration and border patrol; a lot of history on the kingdom itself; and not entirely enough explanations of why Atlanteans have to drive underwater ships when they can swim super fast, or why Orm’s ex-fiancée Mera doesn’t want the throne herself, or how Arthur manages to wear denim and leather both underwater and on land without getting uncomfortable.

We haven’t even gotten to Julie Andrews voicing the most fearsome creature of the deep (while not appearing in the upcoming Mary Poppins sequel Mary Poppins Returns).

Aquaman is just so much story smashed into two hours and 22 minutes.

It feels like four or five different movies happening at once, not to mention that it playfully winks at legendary films like Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (via Arthur’s hunt for the trident), the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the trident), The Sword in the Stone (also the trident), and perhaps unintentionally Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (at one point, Arthur and Mera find themselves in a coastal Mediterranean town, and can’t stop love from happening).

To be sure, there are brilliant, joyous little moments in each of the mini-movies that make up Aquaman, but there’s also a lot of boredom and muddling along, thanks to all the exposition they require. Instead of five just-okay movies, I wish that Aquaman was one great one.

There’s still a lot to love about Aquaman and its fun style

Despite the nagging flaw that is Aquaman’s hyper-extended plot, the movie delivers in its action sequences and its bright visuals. And when it comes to superhero comic book movies, you can forgive a lot of things if the spectacle succeeds.

Gone are the Gumby-like CGI effects that plagued Warner Bros.’s past DC Comics movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, making them look as if someone fast-forwarded a WWE fight. In their place are Aquaman’s dynamic sense of space, and inventive use of both of its land-locked and underwater environments.

In the more intricate fight scenes, Wan likes to play with the idea of space and visuals, making you feel the claustrophobia of a submarine or the familiarity of a family room. He also emphasizes the bone-crunching aspect of fights, amplifying the thuds of bodies and not minimizing the concussions that are clearly being doled out, as opposed to the Batman v. Superman style of action figures just bouncing off one another, without much regard for gravity and mass.

Wan adds welcome flair via brief moments of comedy — a Magic Mike-worthy flex here, or a Beyoncé-like hair toss there, to lighten the mood. Instead of dramatic exits, for example, everyone, including the very regal Dafoe, has to sort of breaststroke or tread away.

Just like Wonder Woman was built around Gal Gadot’s buoyant, bright spirit, Aquaman hinges on Momoa’s natural swarthy charisma and charm, and Wan’s willingness to let those things shine makes the movie enjoyable in spite of its rote music cues and some shopworn lines. Momoa also gets to tap into his inner lunk, frequently bouncing off of Heard’s dutiful and squarish Mera or Wilson’s self-serious Orm with physical comedy or barbed comments about his (lack of) refinement.

It’s pertinent to remember that Wan previously directed Furious 7, the seventh installment in the Fast and Furious franchise. In Aquaman, he flexes his action muscles to create power-packed chase scenes as Mera and Arthur zip through Atlantis in their ship. Wan also manages to pull off a huge final war sequence — complete with nasty sea dragons, belligerent orcas, and the giant, kitschy crab army — that is somehow both giggle- and awe-inducing.

But his true gifts show in a sequence that conjures up thalassophobia, the fear of deep water. Horror is truly Wan’s element, and letting him play with the nightmares of the deep dark results in a ferocious spectacle — again it’s one of those instances that’s stands out in the crowdedness of Aquaman.

In the end, Aquaman’s greatest strength is its visual style. Even when it borders on bioluminescent whimsy, it’s so distinctly and ceaselessly its own, instead of mimicking its DC/Warner Bros. counterparts. You almost don’t mind that you’re watching comic book cheesiness or such a convoluted plot because, like Momoa’s hair, it’s just so fun to look at.

Aquaman will be released in theaters on December 21, 2018 (screenings begin the evening of December 20).

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.