Directed by horror master James Wan making a leap to the comic book universe, Aquaman tells the story of the born king of Atlantis, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), who must stop his half-brother King Orm’s (Patrick Wilson) plan to use the full might of the kingdoms of the ocean to attack the surface world by laying a claim for the throne. To do this, Arthur has to prove his worth by finding the ancient trident of the legendary King Atlan, with the help of Amber Heard’s Mera.
It probably bears addressing right away, that core story is a very familiar one in the recent comic book movie world. The cocky heir to a mythical kingdom having to prove himself worthy of his birthright and contest the throne with his insidious half-brother is reminiscent of the first Thor. At certain parts of the film, and especially towards the end, the similarities between the two will be difficult to ignore. Having said that, just because a story has been told before, doesn’t mean it’s not compelling.
But what Aquaman succeeds where Thor failed is it trusts its audience to buy into its world building enough not to anchor its story to our world. A lot of screen time is spent on the surface world, sure, but it’s not afraid to dive head first into the mythology of the ocean world. Wan creates a vibrant and futuristic realm in Atlantis, as well as taking us on a journey to other kingdoms in this new and wonderful world. Even the seemingly unconvincing green screen effects in some key moments create a mystical, otherworldly feel for the story, although I can’t guarantee that’s not just a fortunate byproduct of shoddy green screen work.
It’s also a pretty action heavy film, and Wan’s direction shines here. He uses plenty of wide shots to showcase the terrific action choreography. There’s a particular technique Wan likes to use, which is to revolve the camera around the protagonist as they clean out a room full of bad guys, which was used in awe-inspiring effect particularly in an early sequence with Nicole Kidman’s Queen Atlanna. The action is also used to show the change in Arthur’s character as his fighting style shifts from an overconfident, brute style to a more elegant one as his character grows.
The surfer-bro image of the character that divided some people in Justice League is toned down, but he’s still snarky and humorous, which works with the movie’s tone but does deflate the tension a bit too much. I do have issues with Momoa’s performance, though. He’s a fun and commanding presence as Aquaman, but this story requires some vulnerability from him, and he couldn’t deliver that. At Arthur’s weakest points, instead of a nuanced performance giving us the picture, the movie had to rely on characters telling us how he feels, which is disappointing.
And on the topic of disappointing performances, Patrick Wilson’s Orm is also a bit of a letdown. Playing a power-hungry ocean king who likes to show off his power by shouting to his people and wearing big, flashy suits of armor, he seems to be taking the role a bit too seriously. An actor more willing to chew the scenery in this role would’ve been a scene-stealer.
While the movie likes to go on about Atlantis invading the surface with this all-powerful army in a war that will kill billions, it’s hard to reconcile that with what’s happening on-screen. Yes, there’s a big show of Atlantean power early in the film, but we never see this huge army until the third act. The movie only tells us about the might of Atlantis, but never bothers to show what danger the surface world – our world – is facing. There’s also the humorous tone this movie chooses to take which, while funny, kills the feeling of an impending assault on our world. Combine the two and it’s a bit tough to believe that the fate of the world is hanging in the balance.
Aquaman is an entertaining film, with fantastic world building, fun humor and thrilling, well-directed action sequences. Maybe that’s all this movie was aiming for, and by that count it’s a resounding success. But I can’t help but feel that we could’ve had more depth to go with the excitement had the film chosen a slightly different path.