For decades, Arthur Curry/Aquaman has been a subject of endless ridicules. A butt of a running joke, thanks to his amusing appearance that stretches way back in the 70s when he appeared in Super Friends cartoon series and right down to today’s countless meme-centric era.
But all of those were changed now after Zack Snyder first cast Game of Thrones alum Jason Momoa to play the title character, beginning with his brief cameo in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) before finally made a lasting impression pulling off a bigger role in last year’s Justice League.
In his first solo Aquaman movie, Arthur Curry (Momoa) discovers he is actually the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis. But he wants no part of it until his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) plans to launch an all-out war against the surface world. This prompts Arthur to change his mind and subsequently join forces with King Nereus’ (Dolph Lundgren) daughter, Mera (Amber Heard) to stop Orm at all cost.
Following the acclaimed Wonder Woman before stumbling with a less-than-stellar result in Justice League, it looks as if DCEU remains in a rocky situation after all. When I first heard that James Wan was on board as the director for the solo Aquaman movie, I kept my expectation low. He may have been an established horror filmmaker as proven in Saw and the first two Conjuring movies and even did a decent job with his first action movie in Fast & Furious 7. And yet, I was still sceptical about him handling a big-budget superhero movie, which also happens to be his first-ever genre.
Fortunately, to my surprise, Wan actually manages to pull it off and even exceeds my expectation. Kudos go to Wan and his screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick alongside Will Beall for making the right choice not to turn Aquaman into an unnecessarily dark and gritty superhero movie. Instead, they are smart enough to embrace the overall campy nature of the title character. They clearly understand that some superhero movies are meant not to be taken too seriously and this is why Aquaman works so well in its favour as a big, entertainingly over-the-top blockbuster.
Suffice to say, it’s like watching a B-movie disguised as a big-budget studio blockbuster and I mean it in a good way. The humour is cheesy but fun enough without being overly jokey for its own good. But Aquaman isn’t just about a full-scale entertainment as Wan also finds the right balance between its fantastical premise and a grounded storyline that emphasised heavily on family conflicts, which in turn, gives the movie a beating heart.
If that’s not enough, Wan pays homage to many classic Hollywood movies of the past ranging from the swashbuckling adventure of Indiana Jones movies to the training montage reminiscent of The Karate Kid and even pulls off his signature horror sensibilities during the elaborate nighttime attack sequence between Aquaman and Mera against the terrifying Trench creatures.
The cast is equally spot-on. Both Jason Momoa and Amber Heard possess great chemistry together. Individually speaking, Momoa proves that he has no problem carrying his own movie as a lead actor, mixing macho swagger and devil-may-care attitude with an engaging screen presence. Amber Heard is no slouch either, as she manages to hold her own as the feisty Mera.
As for the rest, Patrick Wilson delivers a solid support in his antagonist role as Orm while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II made the best use of his limited screentime as Black Manta. Willem Dafoe brings enough gravitas to his role of Vulko as both the advisor of Atlantis and Aquaman’s personal trainer. It’s also nice to see Dolph Lundgren back in a major Hollywood production as Mera’s royal father, King Nereus. Then, there’s Nicole Kidman, whose return to the superhero genre since 1995’s Batman Forever as Dr Chase Meridian, is given a better role than the last time around. As Queen Atlanna, she’s more than an obligatory mother role for fulfilling the origin story of Aquaman but also a strong, fiercely independent character who knows how to defend herself against her enemy. Also look out for Julie Andrews, who provides a commanding voice as the mythic underwater creature known as Karathen.
Wan goes all out, incorporating every best bit of technical and storytelling experience he has previously learned from working both horror and action movies. Gone are the shaky-cam aesthetics that plagued his otherwise financially-successful Fast & Furious 7 days, where he wisely favoured lots of wide angles and long takes (reminding me the same technical approach he used to apply in his first two Conjuring movies) and even some cool unbroken shots (the extended Sicily scene comes to mind) in all of the action sequences. The result is undeniably cinematic that best experienced on the biggest screen possible. I have seen this on an IMAX screen and I can tell you it was epic as hell!
With the help of Bill Brzeski’s production design, Wan has also successfully created a vividly-realised yet meticulously-detailed underwater world of Atlantis. The kind where James Cameron would have been proud of. Kym Barrett’s costume design is just as lavish while most of the CGI is visually breathtaking. Wonder Woman‘s Rupert Gregson-Williams’ music score particularly deserved a special mention here, as he effectively blends an unexpectedly unique soundscape of 80s-inspired synthesiser composition and Hans Zimmer-like soaring orchestral beats.
The only major gripe that I have against Aquaman is some of the CGI tends to be inconsistent and distracting. This is particularly evident with the heavy use of spotty de-aging effects on Temuera Morrison’s portrayal as Arthur’s father ranging from his plastic-looking younger face to the obvious cold, dead-eye appearance.
Remember not to leave your seats too fast once the end credits start rolling. Stick around for a mid-credit teaser.