Aquaman is just as exciting as an action movie as it is in terms of world building and honouring a deep mythology. With a charismatic lead and a supporting cast that all contribute to a cohesive story, it draws viewers to the depths of the world and never lets go.
Aquaman can talk to fish. Yes, that has been true in comic books for years and usually lent itself to a number of jokes for the character, in detriment of far more nuanced and interesting elements of his backstory. So when this movie was announced, the expected question if it would either accept its history or deviate from it to reach a broader audience was more than justified. Perhaps, then, the best compliment that can be given to James Wan and cast is that it manages to do both, pleasing both hard-core fans and moviegoers alike.
The movie is certainly ambitious: it includes two main villains, a complex set of mythology and world-building, giant CGI spectacles and still some of the superhero origin tropes. It could have easily dedicated too much time and effort to any of those elements, which would have made it disjointed. Instead, director James Wan juggles these moments daftly, keeping the narrative momentum going at all times.
At its core, Aquaman is a tale of coming to accept who you are, despite your shortcomings and challenges. True, being the natural heir to an underwater kingdom might not be relatable to most, but the sheer charisma of Jason Momoa and the smaller moments with his father (Tom Curry, played by Tempera Morrison) are more than enough to win viewers over. Momoa had already established himself as a man-of-action, but he displays in Aquaman a growing skill on subduing his acting, of allowing his body language and eyes to tell the emotional side of the story. His comedic timing often hits the spot, with just some jokes feeling telegraphed. And, obviously, his physical presence on fighting scenes is exactly the larger-than-life display one can expect.
Often stealing the show are the movie villains, King Orm (Patrick Wilson) and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Even calling them villains might be a disservice: these are two men with deep family traumas in their past, who often have very justifiable reasons for their actions. True, those are monstrous actions, but the emotional place they come from, pettiness and all, is something that the audience will not feel forced or imposed. The balance between a more physical threat in Manta, with a more cerebral challenge in Orm works well for the movie: instead of having a clutter of villains, this balance adds to the overall package of Aquaman .
The chemistry between Momoa and Mera (Amber Heard) could be pointed as the weak link of the movie. To some degree that is justifiable, but then again their romantic entanglement is not really that much on the forefront of the story. While it develops naturally, the romance takes a backseat to the education Mera is providing Arthur about Atlantis. And although Amber’s acting can feel a tad forced at times, her showmanship on action sequences is great, with a particular scene in a shop in Italy being an unexpected highlight.
Director’s James Wan influence is seen the most on the world building of Atlantis and the the other Seven Seas and on his known ability for terror. On the first aspect, Aquaman is at its visual best when introducing new worlds, settings and creatures. It is absolutely enthralling to enter Atlantis for the first time, or to witness the final battle with armies from around the ocean, with CGI, practical effects and sound effects coming together brilliantly. There are some truly inspired choices – such as the main “highway” leading into the Atlantis capital – and a sense of creative freedom that the producers should also receive credit for. The origin bits on Arthur with mentor Vulko (Willian Dafoe) do not overstay their welcome and are organically woven into the script. On the terror angle, one relevant sequence on the second act of the movie allowed Wan to display his craft, with some truly tense moments and scares that shake the mood of Aquaman just enough to keep it fresh, without derelaying it into something it is not.Continued below
Finally, what is usually the downfall of many superhero movies, might be Aquaman’s best: the third climatic act is an absolute thrill-ride. From the moment the final pieces of the game are laid out, the movie is unrelenting in pursuing its final destination, with battles, individual confrontations, reunions and emotional stakes at an all-times high. It literally brings all the components together which is set to go down as one of the best, most satisfying, comic book endings of all time. It is that good.
All in all, Aquaman is a movie unashamed of its origins, but just as unafraid to explore new angles to play with and new places to visit. It cherishes its mythology without being hindered by it, allowing for their cast to shine, for characters to develop and for some truly amazing sequences to play out. Never bogged down by the weight of its ambitions, Aquaman is indeed the ruler of the Seven Seas.