'Aquaman': DC movies are better down where it's wetter
“Aquaman” is a wonder of tonal consistency. I know -- this is a movie about the World’s Dorkiest Superhero, and it’s jammed with explosively ludicrous imagery, including, but not limited to, Willem Dafoe with an updo, riding a saddled hammerhead shark. And here I am, leading with an annoyingly pedantic observation about tone.
But the truth is, tone is what keeps this nutty spectacle from flying apart. A reaction to the poker-seriousness of other DC Extended Universe movies (which pretty much bottomed out a year ago with “Justice League”), “Aquaman” opts for exquisitely engineered cheese. It’s not smirking, it’s not campy, it’s not glibly self-aware. It’s merely having fun with the laughably silly comic-bookiness of its premise.
This isn’t to say it will be an enduring movie. There’s much joy to be gleaned from it, in the moment; I suspect its charms will disintegrate if I ever feel the desire to dedicate another whopping 143 minutes to this preposterous yarn once again, which feels unlikely. Why sully the memory of a reasonably good time by trying to replicate it?
Some inventory: Played by Jason Momoa, Aquaman enjoyed a cameo in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and had a bigger role in “Justice League.” This version of Aquaman isn’t the seahorse’s-best-pal dweeb you remember from Saturday morning “Super Friends,” but rather, a 1990s reboot with rougher edges. This Aquaman is heavily tattooed, built like a Pro Bowl quarterback-smasher and likes to swill large mugs of beer at a seaside tavern. Momoa always looks a little damp, even when he’s on land, surely a reminder that he’s Of the Sea.
Now, Aquaman, once the butt of many jokes, gets a cinematic origin story attempting to make him cool, then kind of realizes that’s impossible, and instead, improbably hits the sweet spot between nifty and utterly ridiculous. Aquaman’s real name is Arthur Curry, the half-breed son of Alanna (Nicole Kidman), an Atlantean queen, and Tom (Temuera Morrison), a humble lighthouse keeper. See, she sort of washed up unconscious near the lighthouse, and he took her in, and when she woke up, she gulps down one of his live goldfish. And yet, he winds up kissing her anyway.
Atlantean warriors arrive, and director James Wan stages a nifty, virtuoso fight sequence in which a CGI Nicole Kidman craftily and skillfully dispatches her CGI foes in a long, unbroken shot where the camera moves like it would in a video game. She sticks around, although whether she ever marries the lighthouse keeper isn’t certain. Arthur is born, but Atlanna’s undersea responsibilities (she ran from a forced marriage) come back to haunt her, and she’s dragged back to the briny depths, where we later learn she has been “sacrificed to the Trench,” something that happened to Kidman previously, when she was cast in an Adam Sandler film.
As a youngster, Arthur learns he’s not like other kids. He can breathe water, has super strength and can talk to and control the ocean’s creatures. Now an adult, he’s sort of a vigilante hero, pummeling pirates and such, and is dubbed “Aquaman” on social media, although how he pays the bills isn’t revealed. I think he still lives with his dad, and is presumably learning the indubitably lucrative business of lighthouse keeping.
The remaining plot is boilerplate comic-book crud culled from a graceless screenplay that wants to -- brace yourselves, because I can’t help myself -- drown us in exposition. But there’s a shrewdly stupid quality to the anti-craftsmanship of the dialogue; if you’re going to load a movie with exposition, why not stuff it to bursting until the sheer audacious volume of it is funny? I actively listened to almost none of it, but still got the gist: the Atlantean king, Aquaman’s pompous and insufferable half-brother Olm (Patrick Wilson), aims to conquer other underwater nations (including one led by Dolph Lundgren on a seahorse), then lead an attack on Earth’s surface folk, in revolution against all the garbage and toxins landlubbers have been dumping in the oceans. Seems reasonable enough.
Of course, Aquaman bears true claim to the Atlantean throne, so it’s on his shoulders to halt the impending war. He’s aided by Mera (Amber Heard), who’s betrothed to Olm, but actively rebels. Same goes for Olm’s trusted adviser Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who secretly has been training Aquaman to fight, priming him for his inevitable heroics. The plot ties in typical stuff, including a nascent love story, a long-lost-love story, a pirate-turned-supervillain dubbed Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and, of course, inevitably, a quest for a thingy, in this case a Very Special Trident, which holds all the power, etc., which seems pointless when Aquaman can already beckon all the fish in the sea to happily do his bidding. All of them! Happily!
You’ve heard this story before, even if you haven’t quite seen it like this. Everything about “Aquaman” is nutty. Nutty costume design, nutty hair, nutty imagery, nutty set pieces, nutty performances (Kidman is especially bonkers), nutty action, nutty makeup. Wan is committed to going over the top as he takes us under the sea. Even then, “Aquaman” isn’t the most memorable fodder, all empty cotton-candy calories, but thankfully not the gutbusting gruel of other DC films, which seemed weirdly committed to dropping an avalanche of gloom upon audiences. At least “Aquaman” is an avalanche of folly.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe
Director: James Wan
Run time: 143 minutes