Amber Heard and Jason Momoa in Aquaman (Photo: Warner Bros.)
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY James Wan
STARS Jason Momoa, Amber Heard
A nautical tale such as the superhero saga Aquaman naturally lends itself to all manner of water-based putdowns when it comes to describing its rampaging mediocrity. “Waterlogged.” “Washed up.” “All wet.” I’m sure there’s even a “seaman” quip if one cares to wander in that direction.
At any rate, such groan-worthy puns are hardly necessary when seeking to describe this latest disappointment in the DC catalog. Even though it only came out last year, the wonderful Wonder Woman is already starting to fade like a desert mirage, shimmering out of focus with the subsequent releases of Justice League and now Aquaman.
While DC is often criticized (sometimes unfairly) for its why-so-serious approach to its cinematic world-building, that charge is unlikely to be leveled against this latest installment in the DCEU. That’s because Aquaman is most similar to Thor: Ragnarok in its rowdiness and rabble-rousing, with Jason Momoa’s royal rebel coming off as a distant cousin to Chris Hemsworth’s social superhero. To be sure, Momoa is the best thing about this picture, adopting an infectious party-animal vibe that complements his what-me-worry demeanor. His physicality also doesn’t hurt, particularly where his female fans are concerned. As the equivalent of a Jason Momoa pinup calendar, Aquaman rates four stars. As a superhero film, it merits decidedly less.
After the flashback sequences setting up the relationship between the human Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and the Atlantis princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) — a courtship that produces a child named Arthur Curry — the movie hurtles full speed ahead to the present, where the adult Arthur, aka Aquaman, is busy thwarting a mercenary (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who eventually morphs into the villain Black Manta. Meanwhile, Arthur’s half-brother, the Atlantis denizen Orm (Patrick Wilson), is maneuvering to orchestrate a war between the surface and sea worlds, enlisting the aid of Atlantean king Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) to help him squash the puny humans. Defying the pair are Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Arthur’s former mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe, who should have stayed in Florida), both of whom realize that the reluctant Arthur is the only one who can prevent this upcoming slaughter.
“You expect me to call you king?” asks a vanquished foe of Orm. “You can call me … Ocean Master!” And so it goes with the deadening dialogue, the sort that hits the ears with all the unwelcome force of an anvil shot from a cannon. Yet this aural assault goes hand in hand with the optic attack, since the CGI is often shaky and sometimes downright risible. Aquaman is also the sort of overstuffed extravaganza that’s so intent on hitting all the requisite superhero beats that it never develops a heartbeat of its own. Aside from Momoa’s gregariousness and Morrison’s tenderness, there’s little personality to be found in this picture, with Wilson and Heard particularly vanquished by the one-dimensional aspects of their roles.
A shot of an octopus playing the drums would of course be right at home in The Little Mermaid (and it does relate to the actual comic book), but here it represents the tug-of-war undertaken by director James Wan and the five writers as they all seek to find the proper balance between goofy and grandiose. Alas, they never locate it, as the humorous interludes run hot and cold (though I loved Thomas stating that his superpower is drinking beer) while the more dramatic interludes get crushed by the weight of their stodginess. The picture eventually and inevitably ends with the sort of endless battle that should exhaust all but the most fanboyish of spectators. They’ll find this extended set-piece to be the perfect lubricant for their aroused imaginations, while others will merely dry up at the thought of sitting through one more minute of this soggy enterprise.