Through Amazon Prime, I got tickets to an advance screening of Aquaman. I loved it; to a shocking degree. I have generally been more receptive to DC’s superhero movies than most. Sure, Wonder Woman is the only one I wouldn’t begin my defense of with “it’s flawed, but…,” but I’ve enjoyed them. I was still caught off guard at how much fun I had watching Aquaman. Instead of writing a review right then, I decided to see it again. After plans to see it with family over Christmas fell through, I went see again just before New Years and everything fell into place. I liked it even more the second time around.
Aquaman’s greatest strength is how unrelentingly earnest it is. That is a trait is shares with most of DC’s movie output. Marvel’s movies have this veneer of irony, a remove from the material that by treating it all subtly like a joke. The DC movies have lacked that remove. Aquaman is no different. This is a movie where the villain puts on a silly mask and tells everyone to call him Ocean Master, a moment that is treated as sincerely ominous instead preposterously silly, which it is. However, by playing the joke straight it keeps the viewer in the preposterous world of the movie. Assuming, that is, that the viewer bought in to begin with. It opens with mermaid Nicole Kidman washing up on shore near a lighthouse and pretty quickly fighting a squad of mermen in reverse scuba suit armor. You should know right then if you are in or out. And if you are in, the movie will take out on a ride.
Aquaman is something of an origin story, but not the one we’ve seen repeatedly in superhero movies. Aquaman’s, whose real name is Arthur, journey is one of accepting his place as a child of two worlds and of determining what sort of hero he wants to be. It is the same kind of story that Man of Steel flubbed the landing on. Early in the movie, Arthur makes a choice while rescuing a submarine from submarine pirates. It isn’t necessarily the wrong choice, his decision makes sense and is largely justifiable. It does, however, have repercussions. By the time he feels those repercussions, Arthur knows he made the wrong decision. The next time he faces a similar choice, he chooses otherwise. It is believable and gradual change, with Arthur deciding what kind of person he is going to be. In places Aquaman hits many similar notes to Black Panther, giving the movie something of a fantasy epic feel, like Lord of the Rings as a superhero movie.
Aquaman is also a movie filled with solid performers giving fun performances. Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mom. Dolph Lundgren plays an undersea king with murky motivations. Willem Dafoe plays Arthur’s mentor Vulko. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays the villainous Black Manta, though he mostly only gets to show rage. The central characters are Jason Momoa’s Arthur, Amber Heard’s Mera and Patrick Wilson’s Orm. Momoa brings a delightful sort of bro-y charm to Arthur, making him believably conflicted and brash. Wilson is fun as the wrongheaded, but not completely wrong, Orm. He is far enough gone to be villainous, but his motivations, both his larger ones and his more personal ones, are believable. Heard has by far the hardest job, being the only Atlantean to have to have meaningful interactions with the surface while also explaining to Arthur how a lot of the undersea world works. Still, she does it while making Mera a believable character except from some unbelievable wigs.
I am not blind to the movie’s flaws. The most prominent of which is some just miserable dialogue. The plotting of the movie is fine, good even, but the dialogue is frequently dreadful. Sometimes in a fun way, see “Call me Ocean Master,” but more often just being things that no person would ever say to another person. It can be rough. But the movie more than makes up for it with unparalleled spectacle. This is not a movie to hold anything back. It goes places and goes for it with every scene in the movie. You get to see the unreal majesty of Atlantis, then the real beauty of Sicily before the movie takes you to the horror of the Trench and then to the lost kingdom that is the last resting place of Atlantis’s first king. It is very special effects heavy, but it is gorgeous anyway.
I am a sucker for Aquaman’s brand of earnest nonsense. It is the same sort of thing I fell in love with in Flash Gordon (and recently Mortal Engines and 1996’s The Phantom). It is just the sort of movie the I am prone to falling in love with, and I did here.