REVIEW BY ALEXANDER MARGAVIO
This review contains minor spoilers regarding Aquaman plot details.
Ever since DC Comics’ first attempt at a comic book movie franchise with Man of Steel in 2013, the DC movie line has been polarizing fans, and has ranged from good like Wonder Woman, to mind-numbing like Suicide Squad. It seems with Aquaman, however, DC Comics’ has dropped the grit and embraced the silly, much like their direct competitor, Marvel Studios, in an attempt to reel back in fans who prefer the naturally fanciful tone of comics. And it does so with mostly grace thanks to its light-hearted tone and heart-pumping visuals.
Aquaman dives deep into the origin story of Arthur Curry (played by Game of Thrones actor Jason Mamoa). The son of a human lighthouse keeper, Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and the queen of the lost city of Atlantis, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). The story takes place after the DC Comics’ film Justice League (which marked the first appearance of Aquaman in this film universe) and acts as an origin film for the oceanic hero.
The film centres around Arthur having to come with terms with being the next rightful ruler of Atlantis, and becoming King of the Seas, but also acting as ambassador for both the surface world and the ocean kingdom. Along the way he is confronted by the current ruler of Atlantis, and his half-brother, Orm (portrayed by Patrick Wilson), known in the comics as Ocean Master, who wants to rage war on humans for polluting the oceans, and Aquaman’s most famous villain, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a ruthless pirate mercenary who has a personal grudge against Aquaman, and blames his father’s death on him. Arthur isn’t without allies, however, as his former mentor and close friend Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), along with Atlantean magic prodigy and eventual love interest to Aquaman, Mera (Amber Heard) join Aquaman on his crusade to prevent the surface-ocean war from happening and place him as the rightful King of Atlantis.
The story is handled quite nicely, as little to no previous knowledge of the DC films is necessary to understand key points of the story (minus a small callback to Justice League, but it’s mentioned in a throwaway line and doesn’t impact the plot as a whole). Another aspect handled well, that in the Marvel films could take a cue from, is the absence of any major subplots. So, while the film does have scenes with his half-brother Orm, or the murderous pirate Black Manta, it’s all directly related to the plot of Aquaman trying to save both sides of his world and dealing with the challenges that arise from his sudden presence and quest to become the next Atlantean king. Aquaman also manages to land its jokes with proper timing and delivery, rather than coming off as trying to throw as many quips as they can and see what sticks, which plagued Suicide Squad’s writing. As an adaption of a vintage comic book’s character origin story, one that has had many long-standing and complex stories since than, Aquaman does splendidly in condensing and modernizing the history of Arthur Curry.
The film’s cast acts as appropriate vehicles to tell the story, as all of them bring emotional and believable depth to their roles. This can be seen even at the very beginning, as Mamoa softly narrates the love story that is his parents finding each other and raising their child, Arthur, in a quiet, peaceful life off the coast of Maine, which is so well done it could’ve been mistaken for a romantic film. While all the flick’s actors do exceptionally well, the highlights of the players involved are that of Momoa as Aquaman, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta. Momoa’s portrayal of the famous DC character puts a new spin on Arthur Curry’s personality, giving Aquaman a devil-may-care attitude who looks and acts tough, but is really a golden-hearted honest man who wants what’s best for his parents and the surface world. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is also outstanding as the Sea King’s mortal enemy. Right from the get-go, he portrays Black Manta as this merciless, almost cold-blooded killing machine that has no regard for the ocean, the surface, or human life, and only wants to avenge his father’s death by bringing about the end of Aquaman.
The soundtrack is memorable, and was arranged by Rupert Gregson-Williams, who previously worked on a DC Comics movie with Wonder Woman. The soundtrack consists of mostly orchestrated pieces that use a lot of brass instruments that play up the film’s overall theme of regality effectively, though some tracks are more generic than others.
The movie’s special effects are a sight to behold, and that’s not surprising, given that the film has over 2,300 of them, with six different special effects studios working on the film’s visual production. The production companies involved were Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) serving as the main workshop, Digital Domain, DNEG, Rodeo FX, Scanline VFX, and Method Studios. Industrial Light and Magic were responsible for creating and designing what Atlantis and the Atlantean creatures that inhabited the ocean, as well as animating the casts’ hair flowing freely during underwater scenes. Rodeo FX were responsible for the quite believable motions of the aquatic creatures that were under the commands of Atlanteans (most notably Aquaman himself given that’s his most famous superpower).
The visual spectacle of the film made it worth it to see on the big screen in 3D, as it captures the unknown beauty of the ocean, instilling both fear and awe at the same time in many scenes. There is a wealth of creativity that lies within the action scenes, as characters underwater have a greater degree of movement than if they were stuck on land, making most the fight scenes feeling like characters fighting each other while flying, just with an ocean backdrop.
Another aspect of the film’s visual direction, which might turn some people away, is the extended use of slow motion and freeze frame shots. Many times, especially during longer fight scenes, the film will slow down its footage to emphasize rather powerful blows being thrown between characters, and even in a couple of cases, freezes the footage all together to create these almost Matrix-like moments where the camera rotates around the stilted action shots.
It’s also worth noting that if you’re scared of the ocean, or large aquatic creatures, Aquaman will not help you quell that fear, as not only is every sea animal is so well animated, some are even newly designed just for the film, with well-known creatures like sharks and seahorses a prehistoric makeover to accentuate the other-worldly nature of Atlantis. This is executed extremely competently to remind the audience that they aren’t watching an ocean documentary, but a pulse-pounding superhero film with visuals ripped straight off a heavy metal album.
If Wonder Woman was a step in the right direction for the DC Comics’ films, then Aquaman is a leap towards clearer waters. With a star-studded cast that brings forth a story drenched in intrigue and love, with choreography that’ll leave you on the edge of your seat, Aquaman is a film that is worthy of the character’s long-standing legacy, that can be enjoyed both by comic book enthusiasts, and action film lovers alike.
Aquaman was directed by James Wan and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall. It was produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Films. The film’s runtime is 143 minutes long, and stars Jason Mamoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, and Graham McTavish. The film’s budget was around $200 million and has grossed over $1.03 billion worldwide as of this review.