This film adaptation of the Aquaman comics marks the 6th instalment in the contentious DC extended universe series, that has had many highs and lows. Whilst Wonder Woman (2017) was fantastic, every film prior was divisive at best and terrible at worst. Justice League (2017)’s problematic production, mediocre at best reception and under performance at the box office had many people wondering if that was it for this DC universe. But that is not the case, not only given the amount of DC films in production and development, but because Aquaman is a very enjoyable, solid film.
On the land, Arthur Currey (Jason Mamoa) is living with his father Thomas (Temura Morrison). Arthur is half-human and half-Atlantean, having been born from Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) but abandoned by her at a young age. Soon, he is visited by another Atlantean, Mera (Amber Heard), who tells him that his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is trying to unite all seven kingdoms of Atlantis to eventually invade the surface. Arthur must go a journey to put an end to the war and also deal with new arch-enemy Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Manteen II).
How James Wan managed to pull off a film with so many different story threads and tones is beyond me, but he takes a film that could have felt messy and makes it easy to digest. This is a 143-minute film that never stops moving, always having a moment of action, comedy, characterisation or plot. But the story is still coherent and has themes of families being united, unity in general, power and the futility of war, but the film does not throw them in your face heavy-handedly.
What is most impressive however is how original Aquaman feels. Though there are surface level similarities to other superhero films, I was never thinking “They stole that from [insert superhero film here]”. The film embraces its distinct comic book origins and manages to translate it without feeling too silly. There are some goofy visuals, but they do not feel out of place and it feels like Wan has a passion for this source material.
The script admittedly does have some issues. There is a bit too much exposition and this can mean that certain character motivations become lost or unclear. As great as the fast pace is, it was harder to get emotionally invested in the story, especially given the overall lightweight feeling. Finally, there are some loose ends for a sequel to build on, but it earns the right to do this by telling a decent self-contained story.
But what sells the story are ensemble cast, as all of them have many moments of characterisation and charisma. Jason Mamoa might be too laid-back and stone-faced sometimes, but he does make a potentially annoying reluctant hero likeable and shows that if he works on it, he could become a good lead actor. Amber Heard plays a competent, likeable straight man that is a good example of a strong female character that is not obnoxious. Willem Dafoe adds fine support and Nicole Kidman gets a lot of mileage out of a small role.
This is also the first DCEU film to have decent villains. Though Black Manta is mostly there for a sequel set up, his motive is very believable and Yahya Abdul Manteen II is a promising newcomer. Patrick Wilson is charismatic and brings humanity to the main villain, although his hatred of humanity for ocean pollution could have been fleshed out more.
Visually, Aquaman is gorgeous. Despite the heavy effects work, it looks fantastic and is a very immersive experience all-around. The action scenes are insanely well directed, with a couple of fantastic long takes and an overall clear sense of geography and scale. The only problems present are a couple of weak song choices and some rushed editing, but these are forgivable.
Aquaman is a step in the right direction for DC and proof that James Wan should stay in this series. Although there are plenty of flaws, this does escapist entertainment far better than Suicide Squad or Justice League (2017). If you are looking for an enjoyable action adventure to see this Christmas, then Aquaman is a good choice.