Director: James Wan
Screenwriters: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall
Stars: Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman
Aquaman has been seen as the poor-cousin of the DC universe for a long time, which is why this movie has been so long coming. Unlike Marvel, DC have gone out of their way to make movies that are dark, often at the expense of making them enjoyable, but this film, like Wonder Woman, seems to be finally conceding that these movies are based on comics and we watch them to be entertained, not depressed.
The film begins in an almost fairytale fashion, with the story of how Aquaman’s mum, a queen of Atlantis, and his dad, a lowly lighthouse keeper came to fall in love and have a little aqua-sprog named Arthur. Nicole Kidman may be de-aged like Michelle Pfeiffer was in Ant-man, but it’s actually really hard to tell. At 51, to my eyes she still looks gorgeous, and when she shows up later with grey hair, apparently older now, I didn’t think her face looked any different, but enough of my BMX Bandits fantasies. She lives with Aquaman’s dad (Temuera Morrison – yes, Jango Fett!) for many years until her past catches up with her and she is forced to return to the ocean to marry someone she doesn’t love for the sake of holding her kingdom together. It’s all based loosely on the legend of King Arthur and I think that adds an extra layer of mythical credibility to the story.
So years later, Mera (Amber Heard) shows up telling us that Aquaman’s half-brother is about to inherit the throne and unless our reluctant, beer-swilling hero comes back, all kinds of bad stuff is going to happen to the underwater kingdom and our world. Cue some ecological messages about how we’re screwing up the oceans and polluting it with plastic, but don’t get discouraged, it isn’t one of those ‘message shoved down your throat’ movies. The eco-agenda is very much in the background, with the remainder of the story being dedicated to Aquaman and Mera heading off on their Excalibur-style search for a mythical trident that can only be wielded by the true king of Atlantis. It’s part Indiana Jones and part Avatar as we move from one colourful CG environment to another following the clues.
As if this political power struggle wasn’t enough to deal with, Aquaman also has to contend with Black Manta; a human villain with his own axe to grind with our fishy hero. From the way they announce his name with a very ominous music cue, I’m guessing he’s some kind of classic baddie in the Aquaman world, but I’d never heard of him. He does give us some spectacular action scenes, though I was reminded of that old Raymond Chandler quote: ‘If you think your story’s getting slow, have someone run into the room with a gun.’ I think that’s Black Manta’s main purpose in this film, but the action scenes are very well executed and deliver some original beats and innovative fights.
I’ll admit I knew very little about Aquaman before this movie. Apart from his participation in the woeful Justice League movie and a few references in The Big Bang Theory I was coming to this character completely fresh and I really enjoyed this movie. The film’s main strength is Mamoa’s performance. Even when he’s brooding and drunk, he’s still likable and a fun hero to spend time with. I haven’t seen a lot of Amber Heard’s other work, but she’s fine as his treasure hunt partner and eventual love interest.
This movie works because James Wan knows what it is. There’s a shot of an octopus playing drums and sharks with frikkin’ lasers on their heads! That really tells you all you need to know. He’s making a live-action cartoon and it works much better than most of its DC predecessors because it isn’t taking itself too seriously. There is certainly drama when there needs to be drama, but there are also moments of levity and frivolity that films like Batman Vs. Superman were sorely missing. The backstory and the slowly evolving love story, something missing from Man of Steel, help us empathise with character and actually care about him when he’s in danger. My only minor quibble is the same one I had with the Wonder Woman movie – the final fight goes on a bit too long, but I can live with that.
Like Iron Man back in 2008, which no one thought would be a hit and was seen as Marvel scraping the bottom of their barrel, Aquaman may just be the underdog breakout hit DC have been waiting for. It may have taken them a while and they’ve learned hard lessons along the way, but it looks like DC are finally starting to deliver quality films.