Film Review: Aquaman

Royal(e) with cheese

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James Wan’s foray into the DC Extended Universe is a poorly paced and corny cheese-fest, but it never pretends to be anything other than fun. What Aquaman lacks in finesse, it makes up for in Jason Momoa’s attitude and charming commitment to the role. Leaps and bounds better than Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, the film is a flawed spectacle whose sole purpose is to entertain - an old-fashioned fantasy yarn with likable characters and frenetic underseas action. Mild spoilers ahead…

The DC Extended Universe has been having a rough time lately. Ben Affleck is out as Batman, Henry Cavill’s future as The Last Son of Krypton is uncertain at best, and all of the studio’s teamup films (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League) have been critical, if not commercial, failures. Interestingly enough, however, DC’s standalone superhero films have fared much better, with decent to solid entries such as 2013’s Man of Steel and last year’s Wonder Woman. Aquaman continues that tradition with a fun-but-flawed adventure that won’t right the sinking ship, but will at least continue to build a more stable foundation for the DCEU. An all-out assault on the senses, James Wan’s Aquaman is an overstuffed superhero flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also has no clue as to when and how to rein things in.

The film centers around Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, having the time of his life), the son of a modest lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the fugitive queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). Caught between both worlds and belonging to neither, he spends his adult life using his superhuman strength and aquatic powers to foil pirates and hijackers. When his Atlantean half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, relishing his villainous role) seeks to declare all-out war on the surface world for its centuries of poaching and polluting, a secret peacekeeping cabal seeks out Arthur, convincing him to claim his birthright as ruler and stop the war.

At the heart of Aquaman is an all-you-can-eat ham and cheese buffet - it’s the kind of film where the villain, in all sincerity, declares: “Call me...Oceanmaster.” This moustache twirling quotable is even accompanied by a dramatic musical sting at the end. It’s unabashedly silly, but the entire cast commits fully to the corny script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall with an infectious enthusiasm. Jason Momoa, conjuring forth a more patter-friendly version of Khal Drogo’s charm from Game of Thrones, is the perfect embodiment of the reluctant hero archetype, chewing scenery with wisecracks and an impressive physicality. A refreshing change of pace from the sullen Superman and psychotic Batman, Momoa’s Arthur Curry is as much a bro as a hero, willing to kick ass and pound beers in equal measure. It’s also obvious that the rest of the cast is having a blast: Amber Heard is the liveliest I’ve seen her as the idealistic Mera, and Willem Dafoe gets to flex his cheesier side as Arthur’s ally and mentor, Vulko. It’s also worth mentioning that the film’s secondary antagonist, the pirate-turned-supervillain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is fantastic, taking part in a storyline much more grounded and interesting than the underwater politicking of Orm’s uprising.

As fun as Aquaman is, however, it suffers from serious pacing issues and a bloat that threatens to sap the film’s lively energy. Coming in at sluggish 143 minutes, it’s about 45 minutes too long, with much of its overage spent on rote fetch quests and meaningless asides. Seemingly unable to resist his Saw and The Conjuring roots, director James Wan also includes a horror beat that is completely inconsistent with the lighter tone of the rest of the movie. Aquaman also has a CGI problem - Wan, while a capable action director, can’t fully entrust Momoa to carry a more down-to-earth version of the film, with the film’s overwhelming CGI of its underwater scenes threatening to swallow it whole. The more intimate duels and hand-to-hand combat are a wonder to behold, but the final climactic battle is a seizure-inducing mess - there are only so many soldiers riding seahorses you can watch crash into each other before your eyes glaze over. There is a thin line between charming fun and boring spectacle, and Aquaman doesn’t always know the difference.

In the end, Aquaman is bombastic and cheesy fun that doesn’t exactly rise above the most challenging aspects of the DCEU, but it embraces a jovial tone sorely lacking from Warner Bros.’ other superhero efforts, sans Wonder Woman. Messy and over-reliant on CGI spectacle, it’s nevertheless buoyed by a more-than-game cast and a larger than life vision. James Wan proves to be a capable super-director, and if he can iron out the kinks in pacing and some of his more impulsive storytelling choices, he’ll be one to watch when it comes to his next superhero film.

GRADE: B-