Aquaman (Jason Momoa) was already introduced via a cameo in Batman vs. Superman (2016), and with a larger role in Justice League (2017), with this film focusing on his surrounding mythology rather than his individual character.
We are informed that Aquaman is the son of a forbidden love between his human father (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantean Princess mother (Nicole Kidman), and now must journey with the Altantean Mera (Amber Heard) to reclaim his right to the throne, before his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) invades the surface-world. ‘Informed’ is the key-word, as Aquaman is filled with complex, and unnecessary, expositions detailing Aquaman’s childhood and Atlantis’ political system. It comes across clunky and pedantic, with character-beats expressed through ‘why’ characters are feeling, rather than ‘what’. Not that the other dialogue is much better: Aquaman and Mera’s banter is particularly forced, and doesn’t allow any stakes to sink in.
Despite continuous exposition, Aquaman doesn’t really say anything. There’s potential too, with the aryan-looking Orm valorising his “pure blood” against Aquaman’s “half-breed” heritage (Momoa being partially Polynesian). This is never addressed in-text however, and it is even Aquaman’s royal lineage (his ‘white’ half) that makes him legitimate. Likewise, Orm’s hatred of mankind’s ocean pollution, a justified motivation (a la Black Panther’s Killmonger) is entirely superficial and quickly forgotten. There is no depth to Aquaman, giving the actors little to work with. Patrick Wilson is typically a nuanced performer, but struggles to find any crack in the stone-faced Orm. Heard has obvious charm, but is also limited to Aquaman’s straight-person sidekick. Momoa’s Aquaman is a complete cartoon, leaping into each scene with battle-howls and little care, which might be the closest to Aquaman’s ideal version, if the other elements did not contrast so heavily.
While the screenplay is murky (sometimes literally due to an underwater speech-effect), James Wan proves himself a masterful director through Aquaman‘s stunning visuals, fully realised during an outstanding action sequence in Sicily. As the far more interesting (but disposable) secondary supervillain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) attacks, Wan uses continuous shots to smoothly track the fantastical feats, and Aquaman realises its full potential as an expensive and bombastic cartoon. Aquaman’s signature green-and-gold costume shimmers magnificently, and the film shines when it embraces its own ridiculous aspects, rather then being anchored down by its long and predictable structure.
Aquaman delivers on mindless action, but would be more satisfying if it was dumber, its obedience to convention restricting its simpler pleasures. Aquaman is serviceable as a ‘basic’ superhero film, but when the genre has evolved, from Logan (2016) to Infinity War to Into the Spider–Verse, Aquaman feels like a forgettable drop, in an ever-expanding ocean.
Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.