Aquaman (2018) Director: James Wan
“I am a son of the land, a king of the seas. I am the protector of the deep. I am… Aquaman.”
For the longest time, Aquaman was a bit of a silly character in the DC universe. He was known as a campy, half-fish Saturday morning cartoon taking place under the sea. With a big screen interpretation of the character, James Wan (of the Saw, Insidious, and Conjuring franchises), presents us with a winking, self-aware, CGI-infused interpretation of Aquaman. And somehow it managed to find praise among moviegoers.
Jason Momoa plays the titular character, Arthur (named after both a hurricane and the legendary King Arthur). He is the son of a humble lighthouse keeper named Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), and Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). While still a child, Atlanna is captured and taken back to the sea. Arthur is raised among the “surface-dwellers,” hailing from a gruff, beer-swilling, working-class fishing village. After being bullied as a child at the Boston Aquarium, his unique abilities to communicate with marine life are placed on full display. He is able to breathe both on land, as well as underwater, and his body possess godlike strength and invincibility.
Years later, a submarine is hijacked by pirates in the middle of the ocean until Arthur suddenly arrives and rescues all the innocents onboard, all the while fending off machine gun-wielding henchmen. Aquaman is apparently impervious to most forms of human attack. This sets up a revenge plot wherein the lead pirate’s son (under the name “Black Manta”) wants vengeance upon Arthur for refusing to save his father.
Next, we are given a glimpse into the politics of Atlantis –including a debate over whether or not to unite the kingdoms and launch an invasion of the “surface-dwellers” whose violent submarines are wreaking havoc upon the Atlanteans. According to Atlantis, the humans who live on land have been poisoning the oceans with trash and warming the world’s waters, while also bringing war to the sea. Arthur’s half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), seeks to become ruler of the oceans, however there are a few recalcitrant rebels like Princess Mera (Amber Heard) and Vulko (Willem Dafoe). They beg Arthur to reclaim a sacred trident (the lost trident of Atlan, crafted by Poseidon for Atlan, the first ruler of Atlantis) and then claim his kingship over Atlantis. After a submarine conveniently attacks Atlantis, the feuding factions are united within Atlantis, and Orm responds by sending giant seawalls against the human coastline.
An attack on humanity inspires Arthur to finally focus on Atlantis. Before he can search for the sacred trident, Arthur is placed under arrest by the newly crowned King Orm. After a brief battle in which Orm is nearly proved victorious, Mera rescues Arthur and they escape to follow clues from Atlantis to the Sahara to Italy and the remote “kingdom of the Trench” where they find Arthur’s mother who has been living alone for some twenty years. Arthur battles the mythical Karathen creature and claims the sacred trident. Along the way, a forced, contrived romance blooms between Mera and Arthur, though it is every bit hollow and unbelievable. In the end, Arthur defeats his half-brother with the sacred trident and reclaims his throne of Atlantis, though he spares his brother’s life, and Arthur’s mother finally reunites with his father Thomas.
All the cheesy one-liners in Aquaman are at least complemented by some complex Atlantean technology, like water suits for walking on land and submersible explosives –there are at least some intriguing science fiction ideas. However, these larger than life, world-ending superhero movies are just not really to my taste, but I think I understand why Aquaman was such a surprise box office hit. The DC universe is at its best when it is self-aware and comedic (i.e. not reaching much higher than a campy superhero flick). There is a ton of mythological exposition and video game-styled colorful graphics —Aquaman is, after all, a cornball epic superhero movie, filled with winking 1980s pop culture allusions, and yet it has its surprisingly fun moments. At the very least it resists the inclination toward a darker, hellish atmosphere as found in Zack Snyder’s vision for the Justice League.