When DC announced that Aquaman would be the first of the second-tier Justice League characters to get his own movie – before The Flash, no less – there was some confusion. Aquaman? Really? Justice League didn’t help to reassure us that the film would work – the handful of underwater scenes in that movie were… uninspiring, to say the least. And, to be honest, Aquaman doesn’t get off to the best start, with the first action scene subscribing to DC’s most frustrating movie trope – why use skilled stunt people when you can use eerily weightless CGI doubles instead?
But then we catch up with Jason Momoa’s Aquaman in the present day, saving a submarine from pirates and hanging out at the pub with his dad, and suddenly the movie becomes something else, something quite different to the other DC movies. Aquaman is, well, fun. The plot is simple enough – Arthur Curry, AKA Aquaman, AKA fishboy, is approached by Atlantean princess Mera to help stop his half brother Orm from launching a war against the surface. To do so, Arthur must be proclaimed the true king of Atlantis, which leads to a globe-trotting search – above and below water – for a mythical trident. Along the way he also gains a land-based enemy in the shape of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta.
Aquaman boasts a cast who are fully committed to the inherent ridiculousness of being in a movie about magical underwater creatures. Patrick Wilson delivers Orm’s supervillain lines with admirable gusto and works well as an essentially damaged and angry man who has been given far too much power. Abdul-Mateen II is a similarly understandable villain, and does a lot with fairly minimal screen time. Kidman and Temuera Morrison are great as Arthur’s parents, making their love story believable in the space of a five-minute long montage. Amber Heard is merely fine as Mera, landed with the fairly thankless task of playing the straight man to Arthur, but that just leaves Momoa room to shine. Rather than the shambolic dude-bro of Justice League, this Arthur is funny, kind of dim, sweet, spontaneous and has a heart the size of his biceps. He owes a lot to the imperfect heroes of the films director James Wan set out to emulate with Aquaman (Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, etc), and Momoa reveals himself as a pretty excellent comedy action hero.
Thanks to the nature of the film’s hero, Aquaman avoids the DC grim ‘n’ dark pitfall. It’s neither. It’s fun, a bit silly, and, bar a few on-point references to our tendency to use the sea as a dumping ground, it doesn’t take itself seriously. In fact, it leans into some of the dafter elements from the comics – at one point Mera wears a dress made out of jellyfish, and yes, Atlanteans ride sea horses. Aquaman is just a rollicking adventure film, the sort of film where you realise half way through that you’ve been grinning for the last half hour. The action scenes – bar that dodgy first one – are generally good. The underwater battles necessarily lean heavily on CGI, but to the film’s credit it stages most of its key fights above ground. It looks good too, with the various underwater kingdoms all having their own specific designs, and the Trench creatures are monstrous enough to give younger kids nightmares – perhaps the only nod to Wan’s background in horror.
Aquaman joins Wonder Woman at the top of the pile of recent DC movies. It lands its ending better than Wonder Woman did, but lacks the power and originality of that film’s key scenes. It’s just a fun, unchallenging adventure movie – perfect for the Christmas season.