James Wan’s Aquaman, to me, evokes the same response as watching James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy for the first time (though admittedly, dialed down a notch). Marvel’s catalog tracks more favorably into Phase Two than WB’s DC slate until now, but the beginnings of repetitive structure and formula still exist. Enter Star-Lord, Gamora, a gun-nut raccoon, and more space oddity misfits who reignited a sense of creative wonder before the MCU could harden over with staleness (something that was further extrapolated by future titles). In that same regard, here comes Arthur Curry, Mera, and scuttling crustacean warriors to rescue the DCEU from – frankly – its unfocused, boorish, hop-around tonal self.
Staggering ambition turns Aquaman into a sensory overload spectacle that riffs off hypermasculine, 80s brototypes, your mom’s favorite cutesy rom-coms, and sci-fi battles that immediately had me thinking of Heavy Metal. Gasps of astonishment will be a constant scene-by-scene milestone, as Wan rockets higher and higher into a dreamland stratosphere all unto himself. It’s neon bright like a planetarium laser show, and wonderfully self-sufficient storytelling – you could even make an argument that this is 2018’s wildest cinematic blockbuster. What seems like fifteen different subgenres are crammed into a submarine ready to burst. There’s no lack of experimentation here, that’s for certain.
We don’t immediately meet Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) as final-form Aquaman. The short, spoiler-free synopsis is that Mera (Amber Heard) must convince Arthur – with the help of Atlantis’ royal advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) – to return “home” and overthrow his tyrannical little brother, but now king, Orm (Patrick Wilson). To do so, Arthur must locate King Atlan’s (Graham McTavish) legendary golden trident. Meanwhile, vengeful Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) plays the role of roadblock and Arthur still begrudges Atlantis because of his mother Atlanna’s (Nicole Kidman) treatment, but he’s the only one who can keep his surface family safe (father Tom played by Temuera Morrison) from Orm’s declaration of war.
So, all he’s gotta do is dive underwater, challenge Orm to some gladiatorial lava-ring combat and claim his rightful rule. Should be a cinch for halfbreed Arthur Curry, right?
Atlantis’ underwater oasis shines as a marvelous architectural beacon of fragmented light, mechanical aquatic transport vehicles, and dynamic colorization free of leagues-deep shadows (Atlantean eyes adapt to darkness). Don Burgess’ epic-scale cinematography explodes with vivacious hues saturated in a way that makes reality a dull comedown.
Beyond Atlantis’ bustling metropolis, Arthur and Mera’s Indiana Jones artifact hunt trudges them across lush orange Sahara desert sands and against pristine Italian coastal skies. Mera’s firetruck-red hair as ablaze as her undaunted spirit. Dubbing Aquaman one of the year’s most accomplished visual achievements is no hyperbole. Surface landscapes paint tourism bureau grade portraits (amidst Manta’s energy-blaster destruction) while Atlantis’ sunken megacity stuns on par with Black Panther‘s unveiling of Wakanda.
Wan’s imaginative boundaries are limitless like a kid in a candy store with daddy’s no-limit credit card. King Orm’s and King Nereus’ (Dolph Lundgren) ranks ride everything from ferocious seahorses to great white sharks to mighty orcas into battle. An octopus drummer bangs rhythms of competition, capes and costumes distinctly define their wearers, dinosaurs exist, trench monsters evoke Wan’s horror sensibilities (fabulous Piranha 3D meets 47 Meters Down shot selection) – the surprises never cease.
One minute, fighter pilots zip around Atlantean structures in heated dogfights, the next Aquaman and Mera are safely hiding inside a whale’s mouth a la Pinocchio. Mera wields wine as she would water, Wan borrows mixtape-heavy scene setting from his Fast And Furious days, a final battle features every swimming creature under the sun *in addition to* Brine crab people, Fishermen mermaids, an ancient Kaiju-like behemoth – no scene ever contemplates the phrase “too much.” Aquaman is a cinematic belly buster of the richest, cheesiest, weigh-down-your-stomach comfort calories you can’t help but chow down.
The fearless nature by which Wan and his team of screenwriters blend Lovecraft with Cupid’s arrow into superhero-budget “world at war” action and Colosseum-era inspiration is unmistakably special (especially in the DCEU). It’s also at times exhausting, as the film rarely holds steady legs and never allows audiences a chance to breathe. Explosions interrupt sincere chemistry between Arthur and Mera’s impromptu dates. Comedy undercuts vast archeological mysteries when Arthur suggests “I just could have peed on it.” Orm’s monologues ring so dominantly until he *hilariously* emphasizes the term “OCEAN MASTER!” Beats play over one another to a dizzying orchestra, no matter how exquisitely bonkers each note strikes. At almost 150 minutes, audiences suffer from the Wonka-sequences sugar rush that is Arthur’s reclamation of throne and kingdom.
Central to Aquaman is Jason Momoa’s “Aquabro” Justice League titan who we’ve encountered before, but never this flawed or honest. The biracial child treated as an outsider, an angry product of bullying and betrayal, with a back turned to the lost city he could call home. You’ll remember his barbaric bluntness in speech when telling Karathen (voiced by *the* Julie Andrews) to essentially “suck it,” but Wan’s origin standalone defies any one-dimensional frat boy preconceptions. Not to be erased, of course, because this is “Bromoa’s” signature character take. The Arthur Curry who chugs liter mugs of lager at breakfast with pops, keeps twenty chips stacked on his shoulder as motivation, and does things his way – doesn’t think, fights valiantly but gets beaten up – before Act III’s epiphany births the scaly-dressed Aquaman we know. As Braven showcased, Momoa can do more than crack rib cages and muscle his way to victorious glory.
Supporting parts are just as important, given how Amber Heard’s Xebellian princess Mera is the perfect Splash-meets-Black-Widow counterpart to Arthur’s stubborn bruiser. She’s graceful (poise and punishment), intelligent, and the strong-willed sparring partner Arthur needs to heal old wounds – but Mera’s her own woman. Not a pawn. She’s the reason Patrick Wilson’s Grecian-dramatic King Orm must hasten his plans when Arthur return to Atlantis. She’s a mirror of Nicole Kidman’s Queen Atlanna – who fights fist-and-foot to keep her family safe – and more than earns shared rights to melee alongside Arthur as Yahya Abdul-Mateen’s Manta grimaces his way through another scenic beatdown.
Plus, Leigh Whannell is now in a superhero universe. Official canon. Another reason that supports Wan’s selection as director.
Aquaman is the kind of punch-drunk Thanksgiving gorge worth any inevitable food coma afterward. Swept up in Willem Dafoe saddling a hammerhead shark or Romanesque ruins tangled in seaweed just outside advanced technological gates. Dumbstruck by hip-hop-scored suit crafting sequences, Mera’s attempts to understand human culture, and the sequential chameleon shiftiness that is Wan’s rapid-fire subgenre transitions.
It’s a wobbly balancing act – a few spinning plates come crashing down – but it’s also an insanely fun moviegoing experience that revels in absurd decadence like few comic book adaptations can brag (things just…happen). Aquaman confirms James Wan’s adoration of cinematic vitality and free-spirited vision unknowing of boundaries. I’ll take death by Auntie Sue’s Triple German Chocolate Fudge Ripple Cake – baked with twenty cups of sugar and immeasurable love – over pre-packaged grocery store desserts any day.
Aquaman is imaginatively ambitious superhero cinema with no rules, which is more positive than negative as Wan's vision is realized like an underwater laser light spectacle that the DCEU so desperately needs right now.