Anyone who read comics in the ’90s probably remembers Peter David’s mean, bearded Aquaman, a rejoinder to the Filmation and Hanna-Barbera cartoons that had cemented the character’s popular image as a weenie, the Fred Jones of the seven seas, and the butt of endless jokes about his fish friends and the limited usefulness of his marine powers. David’s Aquaman had a lot of backstory and he looked like a shirtless Nordic sea captain with a harpoon for a hand. Before that, there was the brief “blue period” of the ’80s, the brainchild of the DC Comics editor Neal Pozner—an earlier attempt at revamping Aquaman’s orange-and-green costume and making the seagoing superhero cool. There’s no older dramatic plot in cape comics than the one that asks if the character lives up to their suit and powers, but Aquaman has spent decades trying to live his down.
But now there’s the Aquaman played by Jason Momoa in the live-action DC films. After a seconds-long cameo in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, he got a proper introduction in Justice League (the franchise’s low point) as the surly foil of the superhero crew. But maybe that was just residual grouchiness; no one in that $300 million dud really seemed like they wanted to be there. The version we get in James Wan’s Aquaman is more of a party dude. Nü-Aquaman is the hearty, exclaimed “badass!”; he is AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”; he is all 96 seconds of the intro to the early-to mid-’90s Lorenzo Lamas TV series Renegade. He zips around the oceans on a jet stream squirted from God-knows-where wearing a leather duster coat and steel-toed boots. A guitar lick plays every time he glares over his shoulder in his first big scene. He has a wallet chain. He is cheesy and fun.
For the most part, so is Aquaman, despite the usual genre obligations. Like so many DC origin stories, Aquaman’s is a mix of birthrights and parent issues; like Wonder Woman’s, it takes its basic, pulpy inspiration from the ancient Greeks. (Hey, did you know superheroes are, like, our modern myths?) As we learn, thousands upon thousands of years ago, the hubristically advanced civilization of Atlantis sank into the sea. Since then, its people have developed the ability to live and breathe underwater. Some still looks more or less human, though only a few of them are able to breathe surface air. Others evolved into sea monsters, like the scaly Fishermen and the hideous, abyssal Trench people.
Some 30-odd years ago, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a princess of the human-looking Atlanteans, escaped to the coast of Maine, where she fell in love with a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), and had a baby before being forced to return to her arranged royal marriage in the kingdom of the depths. Now, her son—Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, a half-Atlantean with superhuman strength and the ability to telepathically communicate with all undersea animals—patrols the open water, slugging hijackers and rescuing sailors in between trips to the local watering hole with his dad.
Unfortunately for Arthur (and for us, the landlubbers), his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) has set out to wage war against the surface in a bid to take over all of the undersea kingdoms and have himself declared “Ocean Master.” The first utterance of these words, “Ocean Master,” is accompanied by an honest-to-goodness dum-dum-dum. But then again, Aquaman is the sort of the movie that casts Dolph Lundgren as an undersea monarch who rides a giant seahorse. It is also the sort of movie that ends with a freeze frame, and includes dialogue along the lines of, “You have our mother’s trident—powerful, but flawed, like her.” It owns up to its cheese.
With the help of Mera (Amber Heard), an aquatic royal who can move water through telekinesis, and his old Atlantean tutor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Arthur travels to an undersea megalopolis to challenge Orm—and then, when that doesn’t turn out as planned, sets off to find a long-lost artifact called the Trident Of Atlan, occasionally exchanging blows with Atlantean commandos whose high-tech exo-suits spring leaks of pressurized water. This quest-by-numbers plot gives Wan an opportunity to keep changing locations, justifying the bloated budget and running time that is more or less a must for today’s superhero movies: massive undersea palaces and arenas; even bigger ruins; an abandoned Atlantean splinter kingdom lost in the sands of the Sahara; the Jules-Verne-ian hollow interior of the Earth, where dinosaurs still roam; the open sea, where a nighttime attack by the Trench people gives Wan a chance to show off his bona fides as a horror director on a swarming, CGI-panorama scale.
Wan’s The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 had their Spielbergian notes, and there’s a certain discount-Indiana-Jones logic to the stretch of the film that takes Arthur and Mera from the Sahara to Sicily. But for the most part, Aquaman’s medley of influences skew to the less timeless and trendy, quoting the more spectacular moments of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels (the underwater and aboveground cities of Naboo from The Phantom Menace, the chase from Attack Of The Clones) along with some Stephen Sommers of similar vintage. (A little bit of the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies here, a little bit of G.I. Joe: Rise Of The Cobra there.) In the climax, he even manages to do Zack Snyder’s bombastic, grimacing slow-mo style better than Snyder did in his own DC superhero movies Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Justice League.
The problem is that, for all of their cycloid-scale costumes, nacreous architecture, and giant cargo turtles, the Atlanteans aren’t any fun. Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a high-tech pirate with a grudge against Aquaman and a bug-eyed helmet that shoots plasma beams, makes the bigger impression as an underutilized secondary villain. (He’s Aquaman’s best-known nemesis in the comics.) Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, the most successful of the DC films, had its own problems with dull baddies and stiff, contraction-less exposition delivered by actors in armor. Aquaman needs its smirking, beer-loving, roadie-looking, Chippendale-chested hero—not to save the day, but to remind us that this is stuff is about as goofy as it gets.