Depending on who you ask, the DC Extended Universe is one for five, with 2017’s “Wonder Woman” being the bright spot in a dimly lit quagmire defined by CGI mustache removal and a dead-on-arrival Hot Topic aesthetic. Now, with “Aquaman,” that score is slightly improved, as James Wan’s submarine, superhero spectacular rides a wave of impressive visuals, compensating for an at times messy, overly ambitious screenplay.
The film borrows liberally from Geoff Johns’s “Throne of Atlantis” comic book arc, following its titular hero (played by Jason Momoa) and Princess Mera (Amber Heard), as they seek to prevent the Atlantean ruler Orm (Patrick Wilson) from rising above the ocean’s depths to lay waste to the surface world. To be fair, given that we landlubbers treat the seven seas with as much reverence as we would a gas station toilet, humanity probably deserves Orm’s watery vengeance.
With the film’s monarchical melees and a villain with understandable motivations, viewers may feel some déjà vu. Without trying to provoke a DC vs. Marvel debate, one might best describe “Aquaman” as “Black Panther” — but extra. The charm of “Aquaman” is its willingness to get wonderfully weird in ways that other superhero films rarely even scratch.
This is a movie where a mosasaur battles an anthropomorphic crab, and an octopus plays the drums. At one point, Mera disposes of Black Manta’s (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) henchmen with icicles composed of wine. Oh, and Julie Andrews has an epic cameo — narratively speaking, she is gloriously analogous to the T-rex from “Jurassic Park.” One is almost surprised that, in its ridiculousness, “Aquaman” doesn’t include a needle drop on “Yellow Submarine” with our heroes charging into battle alongside Nemo, Dory and Marlin.
In this sense, “Aquaman” derives much of its appeal from the gonzo visuals that Atlantis affords. There’s very little that CGI can surprise us with at this point, but the aesthetic of Atlantis proves to be completely transfixing. One almost forgets the undercooked green screen effects that appear later in the film — which also happen to mark where the story loses some of its steam.
After a lengthy first act centered around the Atlantean power struggle, “Aquaman” shifts gears, becoming an “Indiana Jones”-esque quest for an ancient artifact. This promising concept would have been better served if the film had leaned into it from the get-go, rather than rushing through its beats.
Additionally, an obligatory romantic subplot does little to sustain the second act’s foregone conclusion. And we’re never quite sure why Mera falls for Aquaman, other than (and perhaps despite) the obvious fact that Jason Momoa is a muscly, sentient AC/DC song. Mera could be running the show, and we have no reason to believe why she shouldn’t be.
In this sense, James Wan’s direction largely salvages an ungainly script. As the director behind “Saw,” “Insidious” and “The Conjuring,” Wan follows in the footsteps of Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg and Kathryn Bigelow, proving that a background in horror usually results in propulsive action sequences. In “Aquaman,” the camera often circles around its battles, capturing the action in lavish wide shots and long takes. It’s worth noting that the film’s opening confrontation, between Queen Atlanna (played by actual queen Nicole Kidman) and a squad of Atlantean soldiers, is so well crafted that it puts other 2018 action movies to shame.
As DC films shift further away from the overbearing story and moody tone established by “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” represent steps in the right direction. This probably won’t be the last we see of Atlantis, and the film does a fine enough job of getting us on board. In particular, “Aquaman” demonstrates that casting Julie Andrews in any capacity is the corrective measure that Warner Brothers should have taken several films ago.