I Come from a Land Down Under
There’s a shot early on in Aquaman that sums up the movie better than any review could. Preparing for battle, an underwater cavalry unit enters formation, each soldier mounted astride a bus-sized great white shark. One of the massive beasts, restrained by its rider, thrashes its head and roars. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s attitude: you’re either on board for all of this lunacy or none of it. For me, the decision was easy.
Though this version of the character was first introduced in 2017’s Justice League, Aquaman is still something of an origin story, albeit a blessedly abridged one. One of the screenplay’s wisest choices is peppering the backstory throughout the movie, instead of devoting the entire first act to it. After a brief-but-memorable prologue, Aquaman dives headfirst into the action, showing our now semi-famous hero (Jason Momoa) kicking ass and taking names aboard a stolen submarine. The scene serves as an introduction to director James Wan’s substantial action chops, along with setting up secondary villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen). Back in Arthur/Aquaman’s homeland Atlantis, his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) plots to crown himself king and wage war against the surface world. Orm’s reluctant bride-to-be Mira (Amber Heard) convinces Arthur to return to his ancestral homeland to stop the dastardly plan.
The events of the story that follows are more in line with a swashbuckling fantasy adventure than a standard-issue superhero movie, and this genre exploration proves to be Aquaman’s best feature. Owing more to Flash Gordon and Clash of the Titans than Man of Steel or Wonder Woman, the movie embraces the singular ridiculousness of its title character and runs with it. Wan and company play everything just as over-the-top as you’d hope for, from the melodrama to the costumes to the delectably hammy performances. Wilson is the standout in this last regard, playing the power-hungry villain in a turn that can only be described as scenery-gargling. The whole thing is refreshingly, defiantly unconcerned with being hip, and ironically turns out to be an all-but guiltless pleasure.
Attempting such a heightened tone is the cinematic equivalent of shooting the moon: a high-risk, high-reward proposition. In less assured hands, we’d be laughing at this movie, but thanks to Wan’s knowing direction and a charmingly old-fashioned script, we’re laughing with it. And though Aquaman could never be accused of seriousness, it is straight-faced, offering up its batshit antics with such unabashed sincerity that only the most cynical moviegoer could resist it. It is, dare I say, the most affecting tale of a fish-man competing for the Atlantean throne that I’ve ever seen.
I processed all this information after the fact; while watching the movie, I was too busy having fun. Aquaman is the best mass-entertainment blockbuster in recent memory, and it demands to be seen on the big screen in a way few of its contemporaries have. The special effects – particularly the vibrant eye-candy of Atlantis – are not only beautiful to look at; they’re made with real visual imagination, effortlessly outclassing the grandest images of Infinity War. In its key scenes, the movie makes use of some unapologetically stylized moments – complete with bombastic music cues, slow-motion, and striking tableaus – which shoot for epic and damn well get it.
Although it departs from the recent trends of superhero films, Aquaman shows a better understanding of its source material than any of its peers. Not since the first two Spiderman entries has a movie so deftly captured the spirit of comic books, a medium historically not meant as high art, but rather pure entertainment. Yes, Aquaman is lowbrow. Yes, its hero’s-journey plot is formulaic. Yes, it’s silly even by superhero-movie standards. And yes, it’s an absolute blast, roaring sharks and all.