There’s so much going on in Aquaman I’m honestly not sure where to begin. Actually, that’s as good a place as any. There is a lot going on in Aquaman. Like, a lot. To try to map out the plot is a fool’s errand; it’s a tangle of betrayal, a reluctant hero, Aquaman’s childhood, a single throwaway line that connects to the larger DC movie universe, betrayal, revenge, destiny, heartbreak, and a litany of things I know I forgot. And director James Wan wraps all of this is a Day-Glo, candy-colored, hallucinogenic seascape that resembles the cover of an epic adventure metal album from the ‘80s. And it’s as fun and messy as that sounds.
Comparisons abound, but the common Flash Gordon equation is the most apt. What Wan and company create here looks like a $200 million version of an LSD and cocaine-fueled slice of B-movie WTF mayhem. Think an undersea space opera on shrooms. It’s overstuffed, overlong, bounces around like, well, like a dude on way too much blow, and watches like a filmmaker cramming in every crazy idea he has because he knows this is his shot to go full-on nuts.
Seriously, Aquaman has Dolph Lundgren riding an angry seahorse, an entire army of crab men, another of fish-men, Willem Dafoe’s digitally de-aged man-bun, Jason Momoa riding a Lovecraftian sea-demon while grasping a throbbing trident, and assorted other lunacy. I list weirdness from this movie for days. Most of it takes place under water, which requires ludicrous amounts of effort as well as insane special effects—just the budget necessary to make Momoa’s beard casually flap in the current must surpass the GDP of many countries. What we witness on screen is an insane feat of mania and cinematic endurance.
For as much as there is to juggle, it’s a credit to James Wan that it never spirals out of control or feels like it escapes his grasp. It’s a different movie every few minutes, leaping wildly all over the globe—both literally and figuratively. We begin as an origin story in Maine, set up a dark revenge tale for the high-seas pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), prop up Aquaman (Jason Momoa) as a reluctant hero with a royal destiny, establish an ocean-dwelling power grab from King Orm (Patrick Wilson), create a simmering conflict between the surface-dwellers and those who live beneath the waves, and shoehorn in romantic tension between Aquaman and Mera (Amber Heard), among other story elements.
It morphs from action to adventure to comedy to romance to buddy road trip comedy at one point, all at breakneck pace. And if the momentum does flag, if exposition-heavy dialogue takes center stage and slows things down, all this talky-talk inevitably ends in a sudden, unexpected explosion that erupts out of nowhere and throws the entire scenario into chaos once more. It’s kind of wonderful, but also kind of exhausting. Eventually, anytime a character strings together multiple sentences, you get antsy because you know there’s an eruption any second.
Wan’s visual world-building is off the charts here. Think watching Tron: Legacy while listening to Pink Floyd, or Avatar filtered through the mind of a filmmaker who though it would be a hoot to parachute cars out of an airplane in Furious 7. It’s eye-popping to the nth degree, and I can’t even imagine what I missed and will pick up on subsequent viewings. Kinetic and hyper-stylized, it looks more like a live-action comic than any other funny book adaptation.
When it comes to establishing the film’s internal mythology, however, it’s less assured. Like I said, aside from a single line—I’m not joking, it’s one direct Justice League reference—Aquaman exists free from bonds to the rest of the DCEU. It’s set in the same realm, but every scene isn’t beholden to the larger movie universe and furthering a larger arc, which is a refreshing occurrence for a superhero movie. That said, we get long swaths of Patrick Wilson orating about the glory days of Atlantis or other characters expounding this or that bit of history. Some is necessary, but most winds up superfluous—they add a bit of texture, but at the cost of velocity. There’s a reason Wan ends all of these lengthy diatribes with a literal bang, because the film needs a serious push.
The DCEU takes heat for being too dark and dour and overly serious—especially Zack Snyder’s installments. Whatever your stance on that, Aquaman, more than even Wonder Woman, stands as its own unique thing. It’s campy and goofy and over-the-top in every way—narwhals spear people, seahorses whinny, sharks roar. And they know exactly what they’re doing. It’s full of winking nods to fans, Wan clearly has a blast like a kid playing in the world’s biggest toy store, and they jab at the character—I swear it references The State sketch mocking Aquaman for talking to fish and being useless.
The screenplay from David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall sets up drama with Aquaman’s mother, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who left her world for love. There’s the obvious amorous connection with Mera, a sibling rivalry with King Orm, and Blank Manta has his own daddy issues. But there’s never much in the way of legitimate emotional stakes. The bonkers spectacle of it all carries the day.
I’m here all day for Nicole Kidman getting a badass extended-take trident fight. Mera joins the pantheon of competent, independent, if not fully fleshed-out female characters in comic book movies. But this is wholly Momoa’s movie and it rests on him. Once again, he plays Aquaman as a cocky, trash-talking metalhead who would rather drink beer on a barstool than sit on a throne, growling every line in his best James Hetfield impersonation. He’s best at cracking wise and kicking ass—and his aw-shucks, “I’m just a simple half-human, half-undersea-royalty-boy” never amounts to much—but it’s absurd enough to entertain.
Like I said at the outset, Aquaman is a lot. A lot. It’s chaotic, all over the board, and changes tone and direction on a whim; it’s longer than it needs to be and overflows with threads. But it’s also bonkers spectacle of the highest order, utterly ridiculous, and more damn moviegoing fun than anything else out there. [Grade: B]