“I am… Aquaman!” declares the big screen’s new superhero. It’s right at the moment when he finally accepts who he really is. In the children’s cartoon TV series, the grandiose proclamation was fine. But somehow, when declared by big, burly Jason Momoa with all the sincerity he can muster, it simply sounds, well, silly.
For the record, Aquaman is the sixth installment in the DC comics Extended Universe. The character was previously seen in glimpses during Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, then a year later in Justice League. And now he has his first feature that’s all about him, an origin story. And like most tales that begin at the beginning, director James Wan’s film starts with promise. Most origin stories do, mainly because they have an actual tale to tell before all the fighting kicks in, followed by the declarations of revenge, then more fighting. And even more fighting.
In Aquaman, after a stylish underwater looking Warner Bros. logo floats by, we’re in the fictional small coastal town of Amnesty Bay, Maine. It’s 1985. While doing his job, lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) discovers something he doesn’t see every day. It’s the body of an attractive woman; a long-haired blonde, curiously dressed in a form-fitting silvery costume. She’s lying unconscious on the rocks by the sea. Being the gentleman that he is, Tom lifts her in his arms and carries her to his home by the lighthouse.
When she finally wakes, the first thing she notices is the nearby TV that happens to be broadcasting an episode of the exciting early sixties puppet underwater adventure, Stingray. She knee-jerks by throwing her trident spear directly at the screen, putting an immediate end to Captain Troy Tempest and his undersea conflicts with the villainous King Titan and the lost city of Titanica. But once Tom calms her down, they smile and introduce each other. “I’m Atlanna,” the woman (Nicole Kidman) says, “Queen of Atlantis.” “I’m Tom,” replies her rescuer while keeping a straight face, “Keeper of Lighthouse.”
Atlanna, we learn, had escaped from an arranged marriage and swam from her undersea city to the coast of Maine. Determined not to return, she remains with Tom. As Aquaman’s voice-over narration states, “My parents were of two different worlds, and I was a product of the love that they shared; a son of land and a son of the seas.”
So far, so corny, but kind of fun. Their child is Arthur. But the past catches up with mom. Soldiers from below emerge from the sea and demand that Atlanna return to her underwater world. After a fight – of course; there’s always a fight – the queen is overcome and reluctantly returns, abandoning Tom and her child on land.
It’s just about here where things spiral down. Arthur grows into an enormous, heavily tattooed hulk who, in addition to swimming with the dolphins, develops unexplainable superhuman abilities that give him incredible strength and make him impervious to bullets and attacks by knives. His skin is like armor.
The continuing plot, such as it is, revolves around po-faced Patrick Wilson’s King Orm of Atlantis – “Call me… Ocean Master” – who declares war on the world above in the belief that it was all ‘surface dwellers’ who polluted the oceans. Actually, he has a point. But he also has this thing about Arthur ‘Aquaman’ Curry. Arthur is his half-brother who has a legitimate claim on the underworld’s throne. And Ocean Master is not about to give his power away to some half-breed.
In addition to all the globe-trotting shenanigans that take Arthur to various nowhere specific locations, including Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, Somewhere in the North Sea, Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the Sahara desert, and Sicily, Italy, there’s also a redundant subplot involving a character called Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) a murderous treasure hunter who wants revenge on Aquaman for killing his equally murderous father. It’s a yawner of a distraction from the main events, but, as audiences will discover, his involvement here is really a setup for another adventure that will inevitably come.
With a bloated running length of 2 hours 23 minutes for a story that could easily be told in half the time, with all the fighting, the battles, the explosions, and the never-ending series of someone wanting revenge on Arthur, Aquaman is the film that really never ends.
Sure, the visual effects are stunning. But that’s a given. When Arthur first arrives in his future kingdom, like Black Panther’s Wakanda, the underwater city of Atlantic is startlingly beautiful, while the quality to the appearance of all underwater life is eye-popping amazing. The film is also helped by some occasional humor, a lesson that the usually somber and overly serious DC world has no doubt learned from its rival, the Marvel Comics film series. During an undersea arena battle between Aquaman and his half-brother in front of a roaring crowd of blood-lusting Atlanteans, there’s an octopus in the band with a musical talent for banging eight drums at the same time, a CGI nod to Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid perhaps?
Jason Momoa’s quips and his occasional self-deprecating humor make him surprisingly likable. He’s cast well. Plus, Amber Heard as Mera, an undersea warrior, and Arthur’s love interest, makes a fetching heroine and fulfills a teenage boy’s comic book fantasy figure with a form-fitting, low cut shiny costume of her own.
But the continuing spectacle never feels spectacular. Without the time in its 143 minutes to build tension or establish a setting before quickly moving to the next flash, bang, wallop of an action sequence, there’s no real engagement. The art of telling a story is lost in the need to keep things always moving. The history of Atlantis and how it sank into the ocean while it’s people adapted to an underwater existence would have made for an interesting sequence, perhaps even a prologue, yet here it’s told in seconds and treated as some kind of backstory obligation. Blink and you’ll miss it. Once again, as with many actioners of its ilk, Aquaman is ultimately just lots of loud stuff happening while you sit and passively watch. It’s from the school of all highs, no lows.
Even with a production budget of $160 million, the film will no doubt still make a profit; its holiday release and the must-see hype it’s successfully created all but guarantee a healthy box-office, but personally, King Trident’s adventures in Disney’s The Little Mermaid was far more fun. As for undersea storytelling excitement, give me those puppets from Stingray any day.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 143 Minutes