Aquaman: Darling, It’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter, by David Bax
Like just about every other superhero movie for the past few years, James Wan’s Aquaman begins with a prologue featuring digitally de-aged faces. This time the victims are Temuera Morrison (who played Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones) as Tom Curry and Nicole Kidman as Atlanna. The lengthy prologue establishes their star-crossed love affair (he a human, she an Atlantean) and the child it produced. This time, though, there’s a deeper, if perhaps unintentional, effect. The slightly rubbery falseness of the faces prepares us for the brightly wondrous world of visual effects we’re about to enter. With its glowing underwater seascapes and people with softly undulating locks riding giant seahorses and the like, the whole movie is one big uncanny valley (or trench?). Yet it’s so ecstatically realized that it crosses from fakey into something almost stupidly beautiful. Wan wears his phantasmagorical influences on his sleeve; a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror practically gets its own close-up. But Aquaman is rarely less than fun about its marvelousness. In that way, it’s like its version of the character himself. This is a protagonist who knows what we expect to be true, that being a superhero ought to be an absolute blast.
Once we jump ahead from 1985 to the present (yes, that’s 33 years, making Aquaman Jesus-aged), we find Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) either stopping high-tech pirates (Michael Beach, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) from hijacking nuclear subs or chugging brews at a small town Maine tavern with his pop (Morrison, now with a normal face). That is, until Mera (Amber Heard), another Atlantean, shows up to enlist Arthur’s help in stopping his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), from ruling all the undersea kingdoms with an iron fist and waging war on all land dwellers.
Wilson is doing his level best but, unfortunately, this part of the plot accounts for Aquaman’s only lackluster sequences. Every time we get another lecture on the royal bloodline and the ancient rites and he-who-wields-the-whatever, well, it’s hard to resist the temptation to describe it all as soggy. It’s not just that this stuff is dumb. There’s plenty of dumb stuff in Aquaman, like the way people’s conversations are constantly being interrupted by sudden explosions or Heard’s obvious awkwardness in her role or the fact that Atlantis’ strict biological separation between the nobles and the commoners is a disturbingly unexamined depiction of eugenics. But the mythical mumbo jumbo is the worst of the bunch because, unlike the rest, it’s boring.
It’s also, luckily for us, few and far between. Wan seems to have been as eager as I was to move past the talky bits and have as much fun as possible before the budget and the runtime ran out. Much of this carefree abandon can be found in the befuddlingly eclectic popular music cues. Okay, so Tom and Atlanna’s romance is set to Sigur Rós; that’s not too far out of bounds. But, later, a villain gets a terrific prep-for-battle montage set to Depeche Mode of all things. And when Arthur and Mera have to journey to a small seaside town in Sicily to hunt for ancient relics, obviously that’s the perfect time to drop some Roy Orbison on us. The only thing crazier than the songs on the soundtrack is the fact that they all work somehow.
Wan is just as multifarious and unsubtle when it comes to his action movie influences. Aquaman’s post-prologue introduction, the action scene on the pirate-infested submarine, is pure 1980s excess; he emerges through steam in slow motion to the sound of guitars before going all Die Hard on these criminal’s asses. Later, a trek to a buried palace in the Sahara becomes an Indiana Jones-style serial adventure tale. And that comes right after the Point Break reference that’s so specific I laughed out loud.
We have Wan’s sheer, palpable joy to thank for a lot of what’s good about Aquaman, which is most of it. But make no mistake, he has a partner in crime. Momoa’s energy and presence are electrifying. It’s become increasingly common in these extended universe comic book adaptations to elevate the intellectual property above an individual movie’s creative forces. Aquaman is the increasingly rare superhero movie that’s also a star vehicle, as well as being one hell of a triumph for its director.