One the few successes of the most recent group of movies based on DC Comics superheroes is an accidental one: the mostly underwhelming franchise has created very low expectations for its audience. With the notable exception of Wonder Woman, films about the Justice League – individually or collectively – are grim and disjointed, and without that recent history, Aquaman would likely be dismissed as a bloated superhero flick with solid special effects. But since Superman is a guilt-plagued sad sack, and Batman is an asshole with a taste for vengeance, Aquaman feels downright delightful.
There are certainly flaws in the film, and one of them is that the story is so convoluted that it’s hard to fully summarize, but here are the high points: in 1985, Atlanta, Queen of the Sea (Nicole Kidman) was fleeing an arranged marriage and washed up on a beach in Maine where she met Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), human lighthouse keeper. They fell in love, and it should be noted, their slightly cheesy love story is the most charming part of Aquaman. Anyway, they had a son named Arthur (played as an adult by Jason Momoa), but when he’s a toddler, Atlanta has to go back to Atlantis in order to protect her family. Fast forward a few decades and Arthur is spending his days doing occasional underwater rescues and regularly drinking beers. He doesn’t want any part of Atlantis, but when a sea princess named Mera (Amber Heard) shows up, he learns his half brother (Patrick Wilson) is trying to take to take control of the sea so that he can wage war on the humans on the land who keep fucking up the water. Eventually, he and Mera embark on a scavenger hunt to find the trident of the first king of Atlantis so that Arthur can be the king and hero everyone needs.
As you can see, the stakes in Aquaman aren’t really any lower than other films of this ilk, but the cast and director James Wan (Furious 7, Saw) bring a fun energy that serves as a reminder that even if death and destruction could be in store for all seven continents, that’s no reason for anyone to take themselves too seriously. This is a cast that came to have some fun, from Kidman kicking ass on land and at sea, to Willem Dafoe playing mentor and rocking what has to be his first ever feature film man bun, to the voice of Julie Andrews popping up when you’d least expect it. Momoa and Heard are entertaining to watch too as they flirt, hunt for the trident, and sport some exceptionally impressive waterproof eyeliner. Their fight scenes are fun too. I chuckled at one moment in which a frustrated Mera turns to wine to solve her problems, but not in the way millennial women most often are inclined to do.
When the jokes work, it’s usually a credit to the actors as well. In fact, that’s the case when any lines work, since the writing in Aquaman is, without a doubt, the weakest aspect of the film. Structurally, the story is unbalanced and there are too many storylines and minor plot arcs. This movie absolutely doesn’t need to be two and a half hours long. They could have cut a subplot with a weaponized, revenge-seeking pirate known as Manta and they would have saved at least 20 minutes and had a more cohesive story. There are also cringe-worthy lines of dialogue, like when Atlanta tells the family she’s leaving, “Where I come from, the ocean washes away our tears.” Not even Kidman can make that work. There’s also a Brine King for some reason (played by John Rhys-Davies), but that might have been just so the visual effects team had an excuse to create a lot of crustacean monsters.
If that’s the case, I can actually get on board, since the effects in this movie are excellent. From a simple scene of young Arthur swimming and jumping with dolphins to a visual of hundreds of “creatures of the trench” closing in on Arthur and Mera, the visuals in Aquaman always kept me in whatever part of the land or sea Wan wanted me.
And most of the time, I was pretty happy to be there. The writers for Aquaman could have learned more from the contained stories and crisp dialogue of other recent comic adaptations like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, Aquaman shows that someone at DC finally learned the most important lesson of superhero films: no one wants to spend over two hours in a theater with a bunch of characters they wouldn’t go to get beers with.