“Aquaman” (2018) is an artistic feast, with its underwater city of Atlantis, its bevy of sea creatures and the way the ocean peoples’ hair flows in the water. This latest DC Extended Universe film takes full advantage of the possibilities of modern special effects. Jason Momoa is a pretty good special effect, too, as the title character. As we know from “Justice League,” he isn’t like the cartoon version, but he boasts brawn and charm and makes all the punchlines about Aquaman instantly outdated.
The story, though, is very familiar and predictable, making it hard for director James Wan to raise “Aquaman” above simply a movie that looks magnificent. Warmonger King Orm (Patrick Wilson) of Atlantis aims to unite the seven sea kingdoms (by force, ’cause that’s how they do it in their culture), then make war with humanity. While there is ingrained bitterness among the ocean peoples about human pollution (never mind that they use the ocean as a toilet themselves), Orm also uses Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to stage a false-flag attack to get the war drums beating.
Arthur, a.k.a. Aquaman, needs to claim the throne in order to stave off a world war. Conveniently, he is the rightful heir to the throne, since he’s the firstborn son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Think about what would happen if the evil person was the rightful heir in a story like this: The society would stop the good person from grabbing the throne. After all, before Arthur takes over, all of the kingdoms are willing to follow Orm. None of the seven kingdoms show much interest in thinking for themselves.
To be fair, “Aquaman” is telling the origin story and trying to stay fairly true to the comics (Aquaman dates back to 1941); it’s doing the same thing “Wonder Woman” did, and I liked that film as much as everyone else. So why is “Wonder Woman” great and “Aquaman” merely good? I think it might be because Gal Gadot has a supporting cast to play off, including Chris Pine, with whom she has great chemistry. Aquaman’s love interest is Princess Mera (Amber Heard), and she certainly looks striking, stepping out of the water in a form-fitting, glistening green suit … wait, where was I?
Oh yeah, the supporting cast. Momoa and Heard have their moments, but aren’t consistently at the level of Gadot and Pine. Wilson’s bloodthirsty Orm is “Man of Steel’s” Zod without the panache. Vulko (Willem Dafoe) is Aquaman’s mentor, and Arthur calls him Mr. Miyagi at one point, and why not – Vulko doesn’t step much beyond that template. Black Manta, from a family of pirates, has some fire – he’s angry at Aquaman for letting his father die when he could’ve saved him – and he’ll be a good villain in a future DCEU film, probably “Aquaman 2.”
Screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall try to wring some bittersweet tragedy out of the star-crossed romance of Aquaman’s parents, Kidman as Atlanna and “Attack of the Clones’ ” Temuera Morrison as modest Maine lighthouse keeper Tom. Atlanna washes ashore and, after she eats one of his goldfish, they strike up a romance. Well, she is beautiful, and I guess as long as she doesn’t eat his dog, a solitary lighthouse keeper could do worse.
The extended family feels a bit off, though, since Kidman is only six years older than Wilson and 12 years older than Momoa, and Momoa is playing Wilson’s older brother. It’s strange that a movie can employ thousands of artists to make sure the settings look exactly right, but it doesn’t cast actors who are the proper ages.
“Aquaman” has some nice stylistic touches and a few laughs. The film is at its most engaging when it’s just Arthur and Mera, with the latter awkwardly learning about human culture – for instance, eating a rose bush after she sees humans eating fruit in Italy. It’s at its coolest when the music folks have fun, such as using a snippet of Toto’s “Africa” to introduce the Sahara location. Composer Rupert Gregson-Williams adds touches of metal, big horns and video-game sounds to create the flavor of advanced alien cultures.
“Aquaman” is another good, if not great, entry in the DCEU. The saga gets a bad rap when compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it has done a wonderful job with casting the big four of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman. This is the best-looking of the six DCEU films. It’s lacking a compelling story and supporting cast, but if you treat “Aquaman” as an art exhibit rather than a movie, it’s impressive.