It is fair to say that the DC Extended Universe films have had divisive reactions to them thus far, and after the smash critical and box office success of Wonder Woman coupled with Justice League disappointing in both areas that Warner Brothers and DC have moved towards more stand alone films, where the filmmaker is given greater control. And so we come to James Wan’s Aquaman.
We were already introduced to Jason Momoa’s take on Arthur Curry in Justice League last year and he hasn’t really changed a huge amount since then. So if you were not on board with the much more Momoa-esque take on Aquaman in Justice League then it isn’t going to get any better for you. And given that this is a long film, clocking in at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, whether you’re on board with Momoa’s characterisation of the character or not is going to be crucial to your enjoyment of the film.
But if you were a fan of Momoa in Justice League then you can get settled for a proper old fashioned fun adventure, with a tonne of creative world building thrown in. Wan, along with Geoff Johns and Will Beall, who crafted the story of Aquaman clearly took great inspiration from Arthurian legend. Curry is very much an exiled prince who can only claim his rightful throne by finding an ancient weapon of great power. It is hardly original in it’s storytelling, but it is even referenced that Curry is named Arthur after the legendary king. And what makes the film unique is not it’s story, but this insane underwater world, and the seven kingdoms.
The team behind the film’s production design and effects have done an incredible job bringing Aquaman to life. Not only is this the first time we’ve seen Atlantis, and boy is that epic in scale, but the whole cultures of the underwater kingdoms are rich and distinct from one another. This is a film where armies ride into battle on the backs of sharks, they travel in beautifully designed ships, and giant sea monsters wait. It is an awesome world to dive into, and the whole team behind the film deserves huge praise of making something so ambitious in its scope. Even just the idea of making it realistic that these people were talking underwater seemed like a massive task when the film was announced, but Wan tackled it head on and boy did he succeed.
But that is not the only place Wan did great work. His directorial flair is well known in film circles, and he brings it all here. He may have cut his teeth in horror, with the likes of the Saw and Conjuring franchises, but it was his transition to big action films with Furious 7 that probably better prepared him for Aquaman. The action sequences are superb, particularly in IMAX where not only do you have a cleanness to the scenes and clarity of what is going on, but the hits feel powerful. And much like the film as a whole there is an epic scale to many of the action sequences, from a one on one combat, to full scale undersea battles.
Wan also manages to get great performances out of his main actors. Whilst the characterisation of Momoa’s Aquaman might divide people, his performance in this film shouldn’t. He obviously has that boyish rogue charm to him, and incredible menacing physicality. But in the quieter moments he is also able to provide great heart and emotion when moments call for it, and his chemistry with Amber Heard is superb. And it is Heard who really stood out for me. Her Mera came off as a little bland in Justice League but she is really the heart in Aquaman. She has a true queenly presence in Atlantis scenes, but shows a lot more vulnerability in some of the quieter moments with Momoa, and her childlike wonder when visiting Sicily is a joy to watch. She is also more than capable of mixing it up during the action sequences.
Playing opposite them is Patrick Wilson as King Orm. And whilst Orm is a fairly one dimensional villain, he merely wants to take full control over all the kingdoms of Atlantis in order to declare war upon the surface world. Wilson however is an excellent actor, able to bring a powerful gravitas to the role, and surprised me by being able to match Momoa’s physicality. As a villain Orm is also able to raise interesting questions about our polluting of the atmosphere and the oceans, but this is something that is never really addressed. The other major Aquaman villain that appears in Black Manta played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. It is great that they embraced the outlandish comic book design of Manta’s character, but in the film he is just a little bland, not really managing to be anything more than a pawn or a henchman.
More than anything Aquaman manages to bring the fun that people have been clamouring for in DCEU films, but never sacrifices any of its adventure epic feeling. This is truly an entertaining ride, and the lengthy run time flew by, but it is one that should be seen on this biggest and best screen possible to immerse yourself into this underwater world as much as possible.