Once the dust settles in the theater and the ringing stops in your ears; once you can get your bearings after the sensory assault and rapid-fire storytelling of director James Wan’s Aquaman, you might want to take a moment and marvel at what he has done. With this two-hour festival of muscles, fish and floating hair, he has produced something no one ever even knew could exist: the bespoke superhero film. Aquaman is so exquisitely tailored to and fitted around the outsized personality and impressive form of Jason Momoa that it’s almost impossible to distinguish star from vehicle from character. Jason Momoa IS Aquaman. Also: Jason Momoa IS Aquaman. The entire tone of the movie is essentially the cinematic form of its star’s personality. And the entire look of the film is so over the top because it needs to fight with Momoa himself for the audience’s attention. It’s extremely hard to look at anything else when he’s floating past your view.
Not that we’re trying to be sleazy about this. Aquaman is, like the first Captain America film, devoted to lovingly photographing every square and bare inch of its protagonist, because both films started from the assumption that the outsized beauty of their respective stars was a big part of the appeal to audiences. But while Chris Evans spent most of his time as Cap in uniform, Momoa’s Arthur Curry (yes, Momoa has to answer to that name all through the film, as unsuitable as it may be for him) has little use for things like shirts or shoes. The very first thing you see him do in the film is flip his wet hair so it loudly slaps the meatiest part of his incredibly meaty back, then turn around and look directly at the audience with an arched eyebrow. It’s a wise choice in a long string of them by director Wan, who leans in hard on his star’s main qualities and then surrounds him with a nonstop cyclone of visual storytelling. Momoa is free to carry the film on his own charm and muscles, while the story simple explodes over and over again all around him.
An example of what we’re talking about, with as few spoilers as possible:
In order to find the main THING that will allow him to claim the throne of Atlantis and stop his evil half-brother’s plans (Patrick Wilson, going all-in on the scowling and threat-making while also possibly looking more stunning than he ever has on film), Arthur has to find an OTHER THING and then find the PLACE where it has the BIG THING you’re supposed to connect to the OTHER THING in order to find out what to do next. But first, he has to figure out the MISSING ELEMENT to get the the OTHER THING to work. When Arthur and his co-hero, the Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard, doing her best Princess Leia) figure all this out, a secret door opens revealing ANOTHER THING with a MAP inside it! Also: ANOTHER THING needs to be placed in an even OTHER-OTHER thing (all of this on separate continents) in order to find the secret entrance to the FORBIDDEN PLACE, which also has lots of MONSTERS but mainly has the main THING which will defeat evil. It’s “The Legend of Zelda” except with way more violence and fish. Speaking of which, there are also crab people. And later near the climax of the film, Aquaman confronts Julie Andrews, who very nearly fucks his shit up. Not one word of that sentence is untrue or inaccurate. This movie is nuts.
And that’s essentially the formula here. Wan took a story so basic and stale it makes a Tolkien porn parody look innovative by comparison and then jazzed it up with stunning visuals and hyperenergetic filmmaking, all while smartly relying on the innate charm and stunning look of his lead. Jason Momoa is hot to death, Jason Momoa could charm the panties off Fraulein Maria (and kind of does). Jason Momoa is the film’s greatest special effect.
Did we mention the crab people sounded like they were from New Jersey?
For all that, there is a dearth of charm anywhere else in the film. It’s loud and crazy and there’s an octopus playing the drums at one point (no, really), but everyone other than Arthur comes off fairly grim. Patrick Wilson fully commits himself to the evil power-hungry despot role, but the character is so unexplained and lacking in personality that he struggles with it. We hope Nicole Kidman picked up her paycheck and bought herself a beach house or something, because she managed to keep a straight face playing a fairly silly role. Although we suspect she must have loved the fight scenes. Granted, we just saw her in Destroyer and Boy Erased, both of which are stunning examples of her range and power. Even so, we don’t begrudge her this bit of fluff. She gave it her all, but unfortunately, because there was little in the material to back up her efforts, she never stopped being Nicole Kidman in any of the scenes. Nor did we mind the presence of Willem Dafoe, who didn’t so much bring gravitas to the proceedings as he did a committed, professional performance of the kind of role (wise, vaguely sinister mentor) he can do in his sleep. To his credit, he didn’t sleep through this.
The film definitely goes on too long and packs WAY too much story into it. Not only does the entire ten-millennia history of Atlantis and all its scattered kingdoms get layered onto the tale, but there’s an entirely separate villain origin story and subplot going on with the introduction of Black Manta. We suppose the rather stale “outlaw king has to claim his throne” plot of Aquaman’s origins had the filmmakers concerned that it wouldn’t be enough to sustain an entire movie, so they packed it to the gills (pun intended) with stunning art direction and special effects as well as an overwhelming surplus of plot. Still, there’s a ton of fun to be found in Aquaman, even if it’s all centered around the charm of its star and the visual storytelling skills of its director, both of which are considerable.