Since its inception, the DCEU (or Worlds of DC — whatever they’re calling it these days) has had a somewhat tumultuous track record. Films like Wonder Woman garnered critical acclaim, while Justice League failed to meet the expectations of many. The question on my mind heading into the theater was: Which camp will Aquaman fall into? Now, I can say with 100% certainty that this film really goes all in, and I loved every second of it.
Aquaman puts Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) at center stage as a badass vigilante but a reluctant hero. When Arthur’s half brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), the current ruler of Atlantis, threatens to bring war to the surface world, Princess Mera (Amber Heard) enlists Arthur’s help. Together, the pair must track down the lost Trident of Atlan in order to stop Orm, and Arthur must decide if he’s worthy to become the King of Atlantis.
The best word to describe Aquaman is dazzling. Director James Wan paints an underwater world filled with bright neon colors and fantastical creatures at the command of its characters. Gone is the desaturated imagery of Zack Snyder, and gone are his slo-motion/speed-up action sequences that the DCEU has been accustomed to. Wan shoots his action with a combination of wide shots, which enable the viewer to see a gorgeous visual effects landscape, as well as 360 degree tracking to keep the action in what looks like a continuous take. There are moments in these fight sequences that feel like watching a video game —Wan doubles down on the notion at one point by adding player stats to two of the characters before they fight. If possible, I recommend seeing this one on as big a screen as you can find. It certainly benefits from a theater experience.
Beyond its visual aspects, Aquaman has two charismatic leads in Jason Momoa and Amber Heard. Momoa embodies the physicality needed to portray Arthur, while his sharp wit and determined nature makes him compelling in his own right. For Heard’s part, she’s essentially like if Princess Leia were more involved in the physical hand-to-hand combat in her fight against the Empire. Mera, a princess of one of the seven underwater kingdoms, is as far from a damsel in distress as one can get; she and Arthur are equally in the fray in their journey to find the Trident of Atlan, and their banter back and forth only adds to this relationship. Snyder truly hit the nail on the head when it comes to casting, because I can’t picture anyone else doing what Momoa and Heard do for this film.
I also want to briefly highlight Nicole Kidman as Queen Atlanna, Arthur’s mother. The fact that the DCEU was able to get Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman to play a queen of an underwater world, say some of the ridiculous lines of dialogue that she has and take it completely seriously is a fact I will never get over. On top of that, she’s just a kick-ass character, and I believed wholeheartedly in Atlanna’s relationship with Arthur’s father, Tom (Temuera Morrison).
As I’ve suggested, there is a lot to like about this film — partly because there’s just a lot going on. Wan experiments with a few different tones; Aquaman is badass, heartfelt, cheesy and ridiculous. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score even reflects this, with a blend of synths, guitar chords, and sweeping themes depending on the scene. Because of these shifts in tone, though, a few moments objectively feel out of place or dissonant within context (at one point, Arthur wakes up to the sound of Mera playing a pan-flute). I acknowledge that certain elements of Aquaman don’t completely work, but it just didn’t bother me because the fun, whimsical nature of the story overcomes that. However, I don’t expect everyone who sees Aquaman to agree.
Barring the backstory of Arthur’s mother and father, most of the flashback/cutaway scenes are also largely unnecessary. By their very nature, these moments are expository devices to further elucidate the story, but there’s almost certainly a more organic way to do it that doesn’t involve cutting away from the main action. This also would have kept the pacing a bit more consistent.
I do think that Aquaman benefits from a solid villain in Patrick Wilson’s Orm. There’s echoes of Black Panther in the way the conflict unfolds between Arthur and Orm, but regardless, I can understand the latter’s perspective and motivations for his actions. The B-villain of the film, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is largely sidelined in comparison, so the film sometimes suffers from unbalanced plotlines. When he is on screen, though, the sequences are quite thrilling, particularly a chase sequence in Sicily, Italy.
For some, Aquaman may not have righted the DCEU ship in the way they were hoping, but in my eyes, it’s a total breath of fresh air visually and aesthetically, which makes it unlike any world I’ve seen in a superhero film. Momoa and Heard sell the film’s somewhat dissonant parts through their committed performances, making it a fun, action packed adventure romp that’s too enjoyable to pass up while it’s still in theaters.