“Aquaman” is too busy being visually stupendous to be smart

Question for the reader: What happens when you take an action movie from the 80s-90s era of machismo and lack of subtly and mix it in with an expensive, luminescent comic book epic that entertains with an endless parade of seemingly impossible spectacle and as many fish as you can handle? The answer is DC’s Aquaman, a movie based on a character once mocked for his powers of having riveting conversations with starfish but is who now made over into an intimidating badass whose first solo outing is as astoundingly relentless and vast in scope as it is indelicate and two dimensional.

Audiences first got a taste of this modern Aquaman/Arthur Curry – played by Jason Momoa – in 2017’s Justice League, where he was a bearded, hard-drinking tough guy with an enthusiastic war scream and laidback charm. Still very much all of those things, in his first solo outing he gets to step out of the shadow of Wonder Woman and Batman and go on his own, deep-sea adventure. Having trouble reconciling his Atlantean roots after he believes they killed his mother (Queen Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman), Arthur must return home and face his vicious half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson) who wishes to use Atlantis’ advanced technology to wage war against the surface world (how do they say “gulp” in fish?) after we’ve spent years throwing away virtually all of our things in the ocean. This incites an Indiana Jones-style adventure to the desert to find an ancient weapon, one that will turn this hulking, imposing warrior into a king of both land and sea. But mostly of sea.

Now, that’s an adventurous as a story as it sounds, even if it has a striking similarity to the story of this year’s Black Panther (two opposing brothers; advanced society vs. our world; modern, socially relevant issues brought up by the villain, etc). This is even so given how easy to get lost is in the entire backstory and exposition that comes with explaining what Atlantis is (a once great city destroyed and lost due to hubris), what their rules are, and all the little details that flesh out the world, but that also set the stage for any action scenes that will happen. I mean, we don’t need to know about the power of the hydro canons on top of the wall surrounding the city, but you’ll sure be glad you do when the characters have to dodge them during a thrilling escape! Yes, the story gets bogged down in all this exposition and world-building, but it’s hard to care about the abundance of information when you’re lost in awe looking at the Candyland of visual effects.

The movie wastes no time throwing us into the chaos and excitement either. Within the movie’s first dozen or so minutes, everything erupts into unabashed carnage mode when Kidman – showing off her action-flip chops – takes down a room of deep-sea thugs with laser guns, all before going into a heavily emotional scene. A perfect way to set the stage, it becomes quite clear this movie will wear its ridiculousness and emotion on its sleeve for all to see. Come the end of the movie, I counted about four conversations interrupted by enemies exploding through the wall.

The mighty Aquaman (Jason Momoa) in his comic book-accurate costume.

All in all, we’re treated to all sorts of dizzying set pieces, like Aquaman rocketing a submarine out of the water, to the hero and his companion Mera (Amber Heard) outrunning monstrous creatures by diving deep into the ocean, or just wide shots of the city of Atlantis. Then there are the combat scenes, all staged unlike anything I’ve seen in other comic book movies: Heavily influenced by CGI, but still stylish, carefully exacted and cohesive. I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, with most of these moments shown in the proper, full-screen ratio, and watching it this way allows you to take in the breadth of James Wan’s visual style. These moments are shot with the proper scope, lingering on exciting moments for long periods of times, letting viewers take in these mind-boggling moments for as long as they can. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen if I tried while watching some of these scenes, with so much going on in each frame that demands admiration. In a year with Panther, Infinity War and Into the Spider-Verse, Aquaman looks and feels like nothing else you’ll see on the big screen – and I didn’t even talk about the sea battle between sharks, talking crabs and giant seahorses.

For all the action going on on screen it’s only fluff without a good bunch of leading characters, and for the most part, the lead and supporting cast are up to the challenge. Most superhero movies are led by traditionally handsome, witty, clean-shaven characters with an air of grandeur and moral authority – but Momoa does his own damn thing. Grungy, with long hair, scars and a don’t-give-a-shit attitude, Momoa’s Curry is just as much a biker as he is a dashing hero. I didn’t feel like he was being pushed as a character, not getting the chance to come to terms with his own insecurities and doubts about accepting his role as king, but as an action star Momoa has the devil-may-care charm and grit to make a unique hero in this world filled with so many cinematic good guys, giving his character even more personality with an epic war cry he shouts before doing some really badass shit.

Alongside him are Heard as Mera, Kidman as Atlanna, Temura Morrison as Curry’s Dad, Wilson as Orm, Willem Dafoe as Vulko, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the baddie Black Manta, and the one and only Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus. A great ensemble, no doubt, but none of them have the same level of personality as Momoa’s Curry. Heard is fine as Mera, getting to do some kickass moves of her own with some liquid telekinesis, but her relationship with Momoa is established by only one or two meaningful exchanges and even more unexpected touches, followed by sweet “Guess what, there’s something romantic going on here!” music. Then there’s Wilson’s Orm, the actor being the suitable amount of desperate and smart to be a solid villain, but who doesn’t embrace the colorfulness of the movie enough, almost to the point of coming off as a bore. Who knows, maybe they’ll have more for him to do in the future…

As tremendous the visuals and good the cast is, I left Aquaman feeling like I’d seen both something new and fresh and something quite ordinary. I’ve determined this is because that for all the sleek imagery the movie is ultimately made like an action movie we’ve seen again and again across the decades. The hero becomes the hero in the end, the leading man and the leading lady fall in love after a few stolen glances, and there are one too many silly moments. Characters say things that don’t make sense (Mera says they can get through Atlantis’s traffic-jammed gat because she has “diplomatic immunity”), and plot points surface that could make viewers on the edge of their seats groan. For many, this won’t matter. This is popcorn entertainment, and the entertainment comes in buckets.

What I take from Aquaman is that it’s far from the smartest comic book movie you’re likely to see. Hell, even some of the visuals don’t land (the older actors are criminally, hilariously de-aged at times), but come the end of the 140 minutes, with Momoa swimming at top speed to the ocean’s surface, rocketing out and slo-motioning to a superhero pose, I found it impossible for me not to leave in a good mood. The movie is so much damn fun from start to finish and the faults are swept out to sea with every new magnificent set piece that rises to the surface. This is how a comic book movie should look and feel if the goal is to do nothing but entertain and leave your cares out to sea, and like it’s leading hero, it’s unabashedly badass and wants everyone to know it.

GRADE: B+

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