From the trailers alone, ‘Aquaman’ already promises to depart heavily from the cinematic tone and mood that was first established in the DCEU by Zack Snyder. While ‘Wonder Woman’ proved that you can be dark and tackle heavy-themes while still having fun, ‘Aquaman’ goes even further with a much brighter visual palette and a less serious approach to the comic book cinema narrative, which has gotten quite dark with Snyder’s approach to the DCEU and the high-risk stakes of the Marvel films like the last two Captain America movies and ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’
What unfolds is a spritely comic book adventure with inflections reminiscent of ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Lion King.’ It tells the origin story of Arthur Curry, who the public has begun calling Aquaman, who is a child of a lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean queen. Regarded as a freak amongst humans, he does heroic deeds in the oceans and lives a rather uncomplicated life until the daughter of one of the kings of Atlantis comes looking for him to tell him he is the only hope of preventing a war between Atlantis and the surface world.
‘Aquaman’ spends very little time digging into the narrative’s emotional threads and hurries the plot along to bring us to the big adventure. The love story of Aquaman’s parents, Queen Atlanna and Tom Curry, is naturally done in a quick montage over a voice-over, but it is Arthur’s psychology about not feeling at home in the surface world that is skimmed over, which would have been an interesting avenue to truly complicate the protagonist’s story.
But this is not that kind of movie. The narrative beats run quickly, introducing us with barely any fanfare, Mera, the daughter of an Atlantean king, and Arthur is quickly brought to Atlantis for a showdown with his half-brother, King Orm, who plans to push back against the surface dwellers for years of destroying the oceans.
‘Aquaman’ is not a film that lingers and dwells in the story elements. It is rather quick to bring us to the fun: great big action scenes, both above water and below; sea creature; the bright and detailed production design of Atlantis; a romance story; and of course, comic moments for a good laugh or two.
Everything about ‘Aquaman’ feels designed to make sure that you have a good time. The story is rather simple and straightforward. There’s plenty of hard-hitting action and a lot of displays of superhuman abilities. It never takes itself seriously, oftentimes diffusing a serious moment with an explosion (I think it happens three or four times in the film). Emotionally, nothing really sticks but it’s forgivable because it never aspires to be anything but fun.
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So there are lapses in logic and physics, sometimes. The world building of Atlantis is weak and horribly undefined (you never ever get to feel like Atlantis is an actual place or civilization where people actually live), and dialogue is quite simplistic and oftentimes inelegant.
But it doesn’t matter. Jason Momoa is charming as he is a powerful physical presence making all of Aquaman’s superheroics extremely believable. More than just playing the part, you can tell Momoa is enjoying this and it’s infectious. You root for him even if he’s just standing there, ready to beat up some bad guy. Interestingly, Patrick Wilson’s King Orm feels like a flat and one-dimensional character but Wilson manages to make him an enjoyable character to watch because of his one-track mind of giving the surface world a taste of their own medicine. It’s a smart performance, working on the level of a vindictive and angry monarch but, because of his royal bearing, remains calm and composed. Wilson still manages to infuse some nuance later on near the end.
Despite being set in the ocean, ‘Aquaman’ is not a deep film but it never feels like it was going for that at all. Instead, it succeeds in bringing us a fun-filled visual onslaught, full of action and thrills. With ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Aquaman’ departing from Snyder’s original approach to the DCEU, these films are revitalizing the DCEU and paving the way for their future projects to be more welcomed than feared.
Even if the world is in danger, audiences still want to have fun while it’s being saved.