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Jason Momoa stars in Aquaman.

Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Aquaman
  • Directed by James Wan
  • Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall
  • Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard and Patrick Wilson
  • Classification PG
  • 143 minutes

rating

Since first appearing in 1941, the half-human/half-fish hybrid hero Aquaman has undergone countless revisions: from U-boat-battling undersea avenger, to Atlantean king, to protector of a sunken San Diego called “Sub Diego,” to comic book punchline mocked for his perceived uselessness and general lameness. The idea of even attempting a blockbuster Aquaman film was once deemed so ludicrous that it was a plot line on HBO’s bro-baiting Hollywood satire Entourage.

Over decades of reinvention, the character has made one consistent demand of audiences who bother to engage with it: “Please afford me, a merman who speaks fluent dolphin, the respect that I by no means deserve.” And in this way, the character is perhaps the greatest embodiment of DC Extended Universe (DCEU), neatly allegorizing the megafranchise’s increasingly desperate attempts to recast itself, in the hopes of connecting with audiences and compete against the Marvel Comics much more popular cinematic constellation of children’s films.

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As introduced in last year’s Justice League (a film interesting primarily as a document of its own troubled production history), the DCEU’s Aquaman is played by a hulking, hirsute, fully-tattooed Jason Momoa. He’s a brooding, leather-clad wiseacre who looks like a Motley Crue roadie shot through with lethal doses of gorilla growth hormone. The scowl, the smirk and the miasma of darkness enfolding him like a thick coastal fog all feel pitifully par for the course for a post-Christopher Nolan DC movie, which trade levity for an utterly unearned air of seriousness.

Indeed, director James Wan’s Aquaman starts dreadfully enough, with the story of his conception by a lighthouse-keeping human father (Temuera Morrison) and a mermaid mother (Nicole Kidman), a woozy CGI fight scene, early scenes of the young Aquaman (née Arthur Curry) being bullied at school, learning about his ludicrous set of powers, etc. It’s when the film leaves dry land that it really finds its sea legs.

Aquaman’s jet-propelled splash through its various imagined underwater kingdoms proves genuinely entertaining, offering up differently calibrated undersea realms that recall James Cameron’s Avatar, the eldritch horrors of H.P. Lovecraft (whose story The Dunwich Horror appears as an early bit of set-dressing) and the archly operatic Luc Besson of The Fifth Element and Valerian. The sundry annoyances that may dog a skeptical viewer – how do these undersea folk forge weapons in water? Do they mind being wet all the time? How do they shave? – are soon assuaged by Wan’s wild imagination. The action sequences are similarly inventive, with the undersea density providing the high-wire combat and computer-animated skirmishes with a sense of weight that is so often absent in these films.

Amber Heard alongside Jason Momoa in Aquaman.

Warner Bros. Pictures

A few oddly tuned performances by Dolph Lundgren (as an undersea tribe leader), Wan favourite Patrick Wilson (as Aquaman’s half-brother hell-bent on waging war with earthbound landlubbers), Willem Dafoe (as a well-meaning vizier) and Julie Andrews (who ditched appearing in the new Mary Poppins to voice an enormous cephalopod monster) lend the proceedings a silliness that seems almost sub-perceptually self-aware. They’re certainly enough to keep the story – a bouillabaisse of ancient Greek (or, more accurately, Roman) myth, Arthurian legend and vaguely Shakespearean tragedy, further bogged down by some gobbledygook plotting about reclaiming a magical trident – afloat.

For his part, Momoa is a welcome addition to the canon, with his tough-guy brawn revealing a dopey, childlike naivety as he stumbles along his Campbellian hero’s journey, finding time along the way to woo his brother’s fiancée (Amber Heard). Likewise, the film’s brooding exterior reveals, in time, a truly ludicrous underwater adventure.

Where most of these cape-and-cowl epics lose steam around the last act, Wan kicks things into overdrive with a climactic battle sequence that sees killer whales swarming neon sea horses, dolphins dogfighting lobster-men and Andrews’s enormous kaiju-like monster whipping its tentacles around frantically. It wouldn’t be more absurd if the camera zoomed out to reveal that the fray was unfolding in a pocket universe nestled in a Red Lobster menu. Compared to the typical final melees in superhero films, in which a bad guy opens some interdimensional portal unleashing wave after wave of nameless minions, Aquaman’s denouement feels not only inspired but genuinely fun.

In making the first DC superhero film in a long time to aspire to anything like levity, Wan finds a way to catalyze what might have been yet another dust-dry origin story. The secret? Just add water.

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Aquaman opens Dec. 21.

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