Pouring loads of dude-bro “hell yeah” into a clunky, excessive and laborious narrative helps bring balance to an otherwise visually striking superhero yarn.
Under the self-assured direction of James Wan, “Aquaman” is, thankfully, the least Zack Snyder DC Comics adaptation to date. And although Snyder and his wife, Deborah, do get producer credits here, their dark and foreboding touch is replaced by stunning, bright, and colorful images. This is the direction that the DC universe should take, at least, as far as effects and look, but work is still needed to transcend the characters to the cinematic form. The chase of the Marvel magic continues.
Having already met Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa) in 2017’s “Justice League,” there are still some mysteries about the fish man to explore. Namely, we learn where he came from. Arthur is a half-breed—part man, part Atlantan. His mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washes up on land having escaped an arranged marriage to the king of Atlantis. Once beached, she’s discovered by kind lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). After nursing her back to life, Tom naturally falls for Atlanna, who reciprocates his feelings. To their joining, little Arthur is born, but when Atlanna is taken by force back to Atlantis, Tom raises boy by himself.
Of course, being raised by a dude has its lasting effects, and the adult Arthur is the rough around the edges man of the sea that we know and love. Therefore, when he’s called upon to challenge the throne of the kingdom of Atlantis, it time for some major butt-kicking. But Arthur’s standard grab-the-bull-by-the-horns philosophy gets a rude awakening when he knocks heads with the sitting Atlantis King Orm (Patrick Wilson). And if Arthur fails to stop Orm, the entire planet may be in jeopardy.
More fun than impactful, “Aquaman” is great to look at, but tough to buy narratively. A lot is going on, with constant underwater travels from kingdom to kingdom and a host of eclectic and threatening characters. While there is an epic feel, the constant stream of tongue-in-cheek humor fails to gel with the heavier issues presented. The body count is comically high, with one character Princess Mera (Amber Heard) complaining that the casualties are just too much. This is true, as the value of human life, at least, under the sea, seems to add up to very little.
Various themes land, literally, with Atlantis pushing back on the land dwellers by dredging up mountains of garbage and waste that has been dumped into the ocean. These potentially significant images, with a beach awash with trash, aren’t followed up on enough to make them matter. I just kept thinking: where’s the rest of the surviving Justice League while this cataclysmic event is occurring? After all, there is a dangerous combination of toxic waste and even an entire aircraft carrier on the beach. No matter, the bigger risk, apparently, is what is transpiring in the depths of the sea.
Much attention has justifiably been paid to the effects, which are excellent. The underwater sequences are marvelous and constantly inventive. But the opening effects don’t set the right tone. Actors Morrison and Kidman are made to look much younger through digital magic. Bluntly, this technique looks fake, especially, when the family is shown in a snapshot photo on the family’s mantelpiece. I was immediately frustrated, because we all know how lovely Kidman is, even tough she’s over 50.
In theaters now, you can catch her in the movie “Destroyer” where she plays both older and younger, and I did not detect any CGI in the scenes where she plays younger. Why not just shoot it with a retro look, add more hair to Morrison and have the two actors be themselves? But the effects employed were distracting and off-putting.
Still, younger viewers won’t likely care about this quibble and focus will be on the bigger effects in which the creatures of the sea are re-imagined. And given the jokey nature of the story, it all can be forgiven. But where Marvel managed to find the perfect balance between humor and emotional gravitas with something like “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Aquaman” never finds its sure footing and delivers laughs without ever giving you a lump in your throat or making you think that things might end badly.
Entertainment value limited to humor and big visual mastery, “Aquaman” does mark forward progress for the DC universe.