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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Review: Aquaman (2018)

* * 1/2

Director: James Wan
Starring: Jason Momoa

Aquaman is dumb as hell and it doesn't even matter. It's fun and it's entertaining and demonstrates what Warner Bros/DC can do when it gets out of its own way and stops trying to reverse engineer a shared universe. At 143 minutes it's at least 30 minutes longer than it has any business being and it is way too over-stuffed with plot, but it succeeds largely on the strength of star Jason Momoa's charisma and on the fact that there's so much happening so fast that you never have the opportunity to be bored. It's not a great movie, but it's a pretty great watch, particularly on the big screen.

Set sometime after the events of Justice League the film opens with a prologue setting out the origin story of Arthur Curry (Momoa), who is half-human, half-Atlantean as a result of the forbidden love between his lighthouse keeper father, Thomas (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis. Having fled the water to escape an arranged marriage, Atlanna falls in love with Thomas and they have a child, but she's later forced to return to the sea, leaving her young son behind. She does, however, arrange for him to have an Atlantean mentor in the form of Nuidis (Willem Dafoe), who is eventually forced to reveal to Arthur, who desperately wants to meet his mother, that she has been executed. Blaming himself for his mother's death, Arthur wants nothing to do with Atlantis but when Mera (Amber Heard), the daughter of the ruler of another underwater kingdom, comes to tell him that his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is planning to wage war on the land, he's dragged into the world of underwater politics. Ostensibly Orm is waging war to combat the amount of pollution that humans are pumping into the ocean (fair point!), but in actuality this is a pretext for Orm to become the Ocean Master (a term that gets thrown out many times over the course of the film, and sounds lamer each time), which is like the High King of the seven underwater kingdoms.

Arthur's conflict with Orm, which includes an offshoot adventure when Arthur (with Mera's help) searches for King Atlan's Trident which, sword in the stone-like, can only be claimed by the one true king, provides the film with rather a great deal of story, but for some reason the film decides to pack even more in by giving Arthur another antagonist in the form of Black Mantha (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate who holds a grudge against Aquaman for the hero's failure to save his father from drowning while trying to hijack a submarine. The Black Mantha storyline honestly brings so little to the film that I don't know why the filmmakers would bother to include it, given that the character could have just been saved for a sequel. The conflict between the Aquaman and Black Mantha is nothing more than a distraction in a film that already has quite a bit of narrative to juggle and which never seems to quite develop a fully formed identity for itself. There are a number of scenes in the film that leave you feeling like Aquaman is cribbing from other films (here it is doing Raiders of the Lost Ark, here it is doing Splash, here it is doing Jurassic Park, here it is doing Fast Five), some of which work fairly well but all of which taken together give the impression of a film that has no idea what it's supposed to be.

And yet. Despite these narrative and stylistic issues, despite the inherent cheesiness of the guitar twang that plays basically every time Aquaman does anything in the opening fight scene as if to say, "Yeeeeaaaaaah! Aquaman! Wooooooo!," Aquaman is a lot of fun and does a good job balancing the drama/action with lighter more comedic moments. Momoa is basically the perfect actor for this material because he's very at ease doing very silly things. He brings a child-like enthusiasm to the fun stuff which, in turn, translates to an effective vulnerability when it comes to the film's more dramatic moments. Between Orm and Black Mantha, Arthur has a lot of outward conflict, but he also has a lot of inward conflict as a result of the guilt he feels over his mother's fate and his feeling of having been rejected by his mother's people and Momoa brings that pathos through to a degree that is probably more than the film itself deserves and gives this flashy, candy-colored movie something resembling depth.

With the fate of the struggling DC movie universe still up in the air, Aquaman is definitely a step in the right direction. It isn't as transcendently good as Wonder Woman, but it steps far enough away from the overly dark aesthetic and overly violent narrative choices of the establishing films of the franchise to make it feel like the whole project is going in a better, more engaging direction. While it could stand to be a little more focused and less bloated, it's a fun movie that gives you your money's worth and it engenders enough good will that the inevitable sequel will be a welcome diversion.

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