“Aquaman” rescues a drowning DC cinematic universe

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ever since his first appearance in 1941, Aquaman has always been pegged below his contemporaries. Several attempts to portray the hero seriously have yielded mixed results at best, leaving the hero who talked to fish lacking the same admiration as the likes of Batman or Superman. With that said, the newest installment in the DC cinematic universe takes Aquaman and turns him into a likeable hero for audiences to follow.  Director James Wan helms the underwater epic and delivers an entertaining origin story for the titular hero.

The film follows Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the son of a lighthouse keeper and the queen of Atlantis, as he embarks on a quest to claim the throne from his militant half brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), before war between the sea and the surface erupts. In order to prove himself worthy of the throne, Arthur must find the fabled trident of an ancient Atlantean king with the help of Princess Mera (Amber Heard) before Orm can unite the kingdoms of Atlantis for war.

When this film was first announced, the main concern was how a movie with a mainly underwater setting would draw appeal. Luckily, James Wan’s depiction of Atlantis is visually breathtaking, and glows with an aesthetic design that accentuates the underwater kingdom’s unique culture.

Though Atlantis is clearly the centerpiece and the city we see the most of, Wan also makes an effort to build a larger world beneath the waves. On his path to unite the kingdoms under his rule, Orm takes us on a journey to meet the various underwater civilizations that share the ocean with Atlantis. Though briefly touched upon, each of these kingdoms is different and unique. The peaceful philosophers of the Fisherman Kingdom are wildly different from their brutish crustacean neighbors, the Brine, who keep to the depths. Visually and culturally, each kingdom’s distinct presentation immerses the viewer in an engaging and believable world.

Wan’s direction also astonishes with the film’s epic underwater battles. The film sees soldiers riding sharks into battle against prehistoric giant shrimp as thousands of laser bolts whiz past them, all while a giant sea monster voiced by Mary Poppins destroys a fleet of submarines. The underwater setting allows for a great degree of verticality in these fights as armies clash on the seafloor, swimming in the interim, as well as on the surface. These blockbuster action pieces are a joy to watch and can’t help but put a grin on your face as they play out.

Every actor in this film turns in great performances even when the script isn’t as deserving of their talents. The dialogue is prone to some cringey moments and is riddled with overdone cliches, sloppy expositions and ineffectual dramatic one-liners, which often kills any sense of atmosphere or immersion. The cast’s performances, however, are genuine and their commitment makes the clunky dialogue feel enjoyable enough.

As Aquaman, Jason Momoa thankfully tones down the surfer dude persona from “Batman vs. Superman” µµ in exchange for that of a much more compelling hero torn between two worlds. His humor and charm work as he shares the screen with Heard’s Princess Mera, a strong warrior who also finds herself at odds with two sides of herself. Combine this with compelling performances by villain actors Patrick Wilson (Orm) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Black Manta, and the result is an engaging performance that covers the film’s minor flaws.

As for the plot, “Aquaman” feels a bit lacking. The story follows a typical quest for an ancient artifact reminiscent of Indiana Jones but lacks the intelligent sense of discovery. The quest for the trident is used to justify a global trip where our heroes visit several different locations but never spend any meaningful time there. Often I found myself wishing that the movie’s two and a half hours would remain in a place long enough for me to enjoy the outstanding visuals. Each discovery that propels them to the next clue is riddled with unbelievable convenience as characters literally stumble upon the answers to important questions. Because of moments like these, each discovery doesn’t feel earned, but accidental and undeserved instead.

Though it is easy to point out this film’s errors, it’s greater than the sum of its parts. “Aquaman” benefits from the decades of campiness associated with his character and the lighter tones breathe fresh life into the usually gloomy and dark DC cinematic universe.

Verdict: Despite poor dialogue and a simple plot, “Aquaman” delivers a fun and entertaining trip through the undersea kingdom of Atlantis. The cast’s compelling performances and its remarkable visuals make for a fun movie-going experience.

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