Jason Momoa's Aquaman is Arthur Curry at Peak Cool
Aquaman is the lamest superhero. For the longest time, the king of Atlantis has been the butt of superhero jokes. He swims, he talks to fish, and he’s pretty useless out of water. But for a short while in the 90’s, under the writing of Peter David, Arthur Curry actually became cool. He looked pretty much exactly like Jason Momoa with long, surfer hair and a hipster beard; he ran around topless in all his muscled glory, and had a harpoon for a hand.
Somewhere along the way, however, Aquaman returned to looking like Malibu Ken and back to wearing his garish orange and green costume. He became the punchline of Rex Navarrete’s Maritess vs the Superfriends skit, and he was lame again.
James Wan’s Aquaman is the hero’s return to badassery (sans the harpoon hand), with the architect of the Conjuring universe subverting every joke and meme and turning it into something cool. The ability to talk to fish turns out to be one of the best superpowers, with some of the best moments of the film being when he communicates with creatures of the deep in a way that only he can. Wan even pays homage to the Super Friends’ classic waves of concentric circles and it’s ridiculously awesome.
James Wan’s Aquaman is the hero’s return to badassery (sans the harpoon hand)
Arthur Curry is a mixed-race hero much like the actor who plays him: Jason Momoa (full name Joseph Jason Namakaeha Momoa) is half native Hawaiian and part German, Irish, and a sprinkling of Native American, while the one, true king of Atlantis has a human father and Atlantean mother. In the movie, a very white and unsettlingly ethereal Nicole Kidman is Queen Atlanna—who quickly and humourously answers the question of whether Atlanteans eat fish (take that, Maritess!)—fleeing an arranged marriage and is rescued by lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry, played by Kiwi Temuera Morrison. The two fall in love, have a baby, and generally live happily until everything goes awry when the Atlanteans come knocking to drag their runaway queen back into the depths.
Aquaman’s message of unity never feels heavy-handed despite being baked into the plot. It isn’t subtle, but at the same time it doesn’t feel contrived, either. Wan necessarily inserts a statement against environmental pollution, correctly noting that it would be impossible to make an Aquaman film without touching on all the garbage we dump into the sea. In fact, Aquaman tries to say and be so many things that at times the film feels unbalanced and unwieldy but never unfun. Wan manages to balance all the story elements and characters just enough to make it an enjoyable ride throughout.
It’s a by-the-numbers story of a reluctant heir to the throne who must stake his claim against his power-mad half-brother who seeks war against the surface world. King Orm (Patrick Wilson), aka Ocean Master seeks to unite the seven sea kingdoms of to strike against humanity. He’s allied with the kingdom of Xebel, led by its red-headed, giant seahorse-riding royalty King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) and his daughter Mera (Amber Heard). The crass, irreverent, hard-drinking Curry makes for the unlikeliest king but a truly lovable hero.
Mera is powerful and passionate, with an intelligence and level-headedness that balances Arthur’s street smarts and recklessness.
Momoa’s roguish affability is hard not to love, and his laid back charm is quite unlike any other superhero. But what sets this film apart is Mera’s equal billing. Aquaman may be the titular character, but the rebellious princess is every bit as important to the journey and is integral to Arthur’s evolution from part-time do-gooder to hero and king. Mera is powerful and passionate, with an intelligence and level-headedness that balances Arthur’s street smarts and recklessness. She’s no damsel in distress and, as Heard points out, is one of only a handful of powerful suoerhero role models. Audiences certainly need more female heroes, but Mera carries the load just fine for now. Her water manipulation ability is cool, sure, but she also pulls off a bioluminescent jellyfish ballgown that’s literally to die for.
Wan devotes ample time to developing Arthur and Mera’s dynamic, and puts both heroes through the wringer that the ensuing romance feels perfectly natural. Wan is even able to develop the secondary villain, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), with brief, action-filled sequences and through one of Aquaman’s less than heroic moments to give him enough impetus to hate the king of Atlantis for the rest of his miserable pirate life.
It’s not a perfect film. With so many things going on and so many characters involved, it’s can get terribly clunky in parts. The soundtrack is also unbelievably atrocious. It’s strange how Aquaman’s iconic three-note guitar riff or more of the White Stripes’ "Icky Thump" isn’t used more often. Most of the score is surprisingly forgettable, unusual for the DCEU which once relied heavily on the genius of Hans Zimmer (who’s since sworn off superhero films) to compose standout pieces. The song choices are jarring and ill-timed: While Depeche Mode’s "It’s No Good" and Roy Orbison’s "She’s A Mystery to Me" are terrific songs, they’re inserted so awkwardly into the scenes that it takes you out of the groove of the story momentarily.
Aquaman is less superhero movie than it is the swashbuckling high-seas adventure that James Wan promised.
But while Wan bellyflops with his soundtrack, he scores a perfect 10 in crafting a spectacular vision of an underwater world that audiences have never seen before. It’s the kind of high fantasy and science fiction 2011’s Green Lantern should’ve been. Aquaman is less superhero movie than it is the swashbuckling high-seas adventure that James Wan promised. There’s a little bit of Indiana Jones, a dash of Lord of the Rings, there’s action, there’s romance, and there’s an expectedly wonderful infusion of Lovecraftian deep sea terror expected of one of the best horror filmmakers of his generation. There’s even an homage to The Karate Kid where a digitally de-aged Willem Dafoe as Arthur Curry’s mentor Vulko shows him a mystical move that’s the Atlantean version of the Crane Kick.
Aquaman is also a chromatically luminous and spectacular film that breaks free from Zack Snyder’s vision of a desaturated DCEU that takes itself way too seriously. Instead, Aquaman fully embraces the ridiculousness of a hero who talks to fish and wears a bright orange fish scale compression top and turns it into one of the most fun adventure films on the big screen. Riding on giant seahorses? Check. Talking underwater? Check. A bustling, high tech underwater metropolis? Lobster men? Fish men? A hybrid Kraken-Cthulhu kaiju voiced by Julie Andrews? Check, check, check, and check! James Wan threw every good and insane idea into his cauldron and conjured a deep sea fantasy so mindlessly fun that, with any luck, a whole generation of kids will now grow up thinking that Aquaman is the coolest superhero.