Aquaman isn’t like the other DC Comics superheroes, so it seems only right that his big-screen solo show should have a personality all its own — which, in the hands of “Furious 7” director James Wan, it does. Gone is the Aryan-looking Atlantean in green-and-orange spandex, replaced with a bare-chested Hawaiian super-stud with long, shaggy surfer hair and all-over tribal tattoos. After being unveiled to the DC Comics Extended Universe as the scales of “Justice League” last year, Aquaman gets his own adventure, and it’s kind of a shock that it doesn’t suck, but only if you’re willing to sit through two hours of waterlogged world-building before the movie finally takes off.
Remember, just a decade or so ago, the very idea of a stand-alone “Aquaman” outing was preposterous enough to sustain a running joke in HBO’s “Entourage” series, which poked fun at the notion that a James Cameron-directed “Aquaman” might break all box office records. Now, in a year that saw no fewer than 12 superhero features — ranging from “Avengers: Infinity War” to such snarky meta-entries as “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” and “The Lego Batman Movie” — it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to watch World War III unfold underwater, even if Aquaman was long dismissed as a relatively useless addition to the DC stable.
You see, Aquaman’s skills have always seemed a bit lame by comparison to his fellow Saturday-morning “Super Friends” — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash — if only because his powers don’t have much practical application on land. Arthur Curry, as Aquaman’s alter ego is known, can breathe underwater, swim really fast, and talk to sea creatures — hardly the most impressive abilities and doubly out of place in the present cycle of dark and gritty DC movies (into which “Wonder Woman” offered a welcome beam of slightly less somber female empowerment).
Add Wan, who got his start with the twisted “Saw” franchise, and one doesn’t expect things to lighten up much, so it may come as a nice surprise that the director takes a vaguely tongue-in-cheek approach — nothing as overtly satiric as the pop-savvy, postmodern comedy-action movies of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“21 Jump Street,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) but irreverent enough to deflect from what is inherently silly about a man who talks to dolphins and rides a giant seahorse.
As described by co-writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“Orphan”) and Will Beall (“Gangster Squad”), Aquaman is a well-meaning meathead with serious reservations about returning to the deep-sea kingdom that banished his mother (Nicole Kidman) to “the trench” for daring to elope with a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison). Kidman’s participation lends a degree of credibility to Arthur’s corny backstory — as does Willem Dafoe’s involvement as Vulko, the royal counselor who coaches him on how to use his powers.
Still, “Aquaman” skips over most of those obligatory (but apparently not) scenes in which a superhero discovers what he can do. Instead, the film concentrates much of its energy on establishing the elaborate — and supremely uninteresting — mythology of Atlantis, which was once the most advanced civilization on Earth, until avarice (and bad CGI) sent it sinking to the bottom of the sea. The production designers have outdone themselves here imagining an astonishing other world beneath the ocean’s surface, where various civilizations have evolved independently.
Arthur, we are told, could be the one chosen to bring the conflicting above- and below-sea-level people together, although it doesn’t help tensions between the seven sea kingdoms and humankind that the land-dwellers have spent the past few decades hunting whales and polluting the oceans — not that “Aquaman” is overly concerned with the ecological dimension of this conflict. The movie offers as its villain Arthur’s pure-Atlantean kid brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who has enlisted a dangerous pirate (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, playing the secondary baddie) to help him usurp the title of “Ocean Master.”
If there’s a larger theme to the story, it’s about overcoming bigotry of the kind that Orm shows toward his “half-breed” sibling. To that end, Momoa is an inspired casting choice, since he so clearly subverts the blond-haired prom king look of the comics — whereas Wilson more closely resembles the way Aquaman was drawn for decades. (While on the subject of hair, “Aquaman” adopts a strange aesthetic conceit, giving its characters’ digital dos that ripple distractingly underwater, then combining that with a “Snorks”-style wave effect, which makes everything look like it was shot through a fish tank.)
A “Baywatch” alum who bulked up considerably before “Game of Thrones” relaunched his career, Momoa is now a swollen muscle builder with a pro-wrestler physique that reflects the body-worship appeal of vintage comic books, in which these brightly colored characters were essentially hyper-idealized figure studies, bordering on indecent in their skintight uniforms. Whereas previous DC stars have relied on well-padded costumes to supply their abs and pecs, Aquaman puts the “cod” in “codpiece,” so to speak, and the movie isn’t shy about ogling his bulges at every opportunity.
This unseemly observation bears mentioning if only because this particular superhero movie seems to be marketed largely on its sex appeal, further rewarding female audiences by pairing Momoa with a formidable aqua-woman. Amber Heard plays Mera, princess of Xebel. With her Hawaiian Punch-red hair and mermaid-green bodysuit, she looks like some kind of cosplay Ariel but proves to be the more resourceful of the two Atlanteans: It is Mera who rescues Aquaman from several tight squeezes, and when it comes time to find the movie’s central MacGuffin — the lost Trident of Atlan — she’s the first to jump out of a plane without a chute.
As Aquaman grapples with whether to defend the people who banished his mother, his quest feels like a cross between the monomythic hero’s journey and a watered-down “National Treasure” sequel, in which he travels from the driest place on the planet — the Kingdom of the Deserters, deep in the Sahara — to the depths of the ocean to find the Hidden Sea at the earth’s core, solving riddles and facing monsters at each turn.
The script is anything but elegant, full of eye-rolling lines that make the dialogue contained in your average comic book speech balloon sound almost Shakespearean by comparison (e.g., “Where I come from, the sea carries our tears away”), although “Aquaman” plainly has a sense of humor about itself. The biggest surprise here is that, after the running time of a standard-length film has elapsed, “Aquaman” kicks the movie up a level for the finale. At just the moment this critic’s eyes tend to glaze over in superhero movies — typically, as the villain goes nuclear and a portal to another dimension opens, threatening to destroy the planet — Wan unleashes a massive deep-sea battle on par with “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s confusing but not quite incoherent as opposing sides exchange underwater laser fire and creatures the likes of which we’ve not yet seen make their first appearance.
The film also saves a series of satisfying surprises for the climactic stretch, thrilling audiences before they leave the theater. For anyone shelling out full price for a movie ticket, this is surely the payoff they’ve been anticipating — all the more spectacular in Imax, for which nearly all those phospholuminescent ocean scenes have been custom formatted. It’s an interesting inversion of the usual superhero movie formula to find a director investing most of his creative energy in the ending, rather than the origin-story stretch upfront — a luxury afforded by the fact Aquaman was introduced in “Justice League” a year earlier. The way this movie ends, “that fish boy from the TV” (as he’s derisively called early on) can clearly hold his own against any of his super friends.