If you grew up snickering at Aquaman while watching Super Friends, it might be difficult to imagine that the man talking to fish and riding sea horses would be the one to save the DC cinematic universe. (Personally, I was grateful to Aquaman for his safety tips warning against the hazards of seaweed wrapping around your legs or getting clothing snagged against pan handles. To my frustration, those clips don’t appear to be available on YouTube.)
OK, Aquaman isn’t a pop culture joke anymore. Not when Jason Momoa is cast as the King of the Seven Seas, portraying a charming lunk who could rip your arms off then enjoy a couple of pints afterwards. As Arthur Curry, he’s far more charismatic and compelling than Henry Cavill as Superman or Ben Affleck as Batman. Had Warner Brothers and DC Films tried to properly establish its core characters, rather than impatiently push its Justice League franchise, perhaps that superhero team-up wouldn’t have been such a flop.
Maybe there is no more DC cinematic universe, in terms of an interconnected series of films that all occupy the same storytelling space. But if DC were to call a mulligan and hide Batman v Superman and Justice League in the cupboard, Aquaman (along with last year’s Wonder Woman) is something that the studio could rebuild its superhero franchise around.
Yet Aquaman is perfectly capable of standing on its own, rather than be a piece of a convoluted puzzle. Director James Wan has built an impressive world around his superhero, creating a spectacle that aspires to the heights of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Avatar. However, while its influences are clear, this movie isn’t derivative. Arthur Curry’s journey from reluctant hero to champion might be familiar — a modern-day fable — but Aquaman feels new and exciting, providing visuals that we haven’t seen before.
One reason that Aquaman stands apart from its superhero movie brethren is that it arguably isn’t a superhero movie. This is more of a fantasy epic, largely because of the spectacular art direction. Atlantean soldiers look more imposing (or at least more elaborate) than Star Wars‘ Stormtroopers, incorporating technology that allows them to breathe while out of the water. Sea horses and sharks are living military vehicles. Octopuses and crabs are giant creatures that can lay waste to all the sea life around them. Swarms of humanoid piranhas threaten to engulf their prey. The set, creature and costume designs bring life to the unknown depths of the sea.
This is probably the right place to gush over how great the Aquaman suit looks on screen. It would have been fine if Jason Momoa had maintained the tattooed and armored look he sported in Justice League. But while Aquaman’s costume from the comics and cartoons might not be iconic, per se, the color scheme of orange and green has stuck over the years. The script cleverly turns that costume into a suit of armor that represents Arthur Curry embracing his birthright and demonstrating he’s worthy of the aspirations that some Atlanteans have placed upon him.
I realize the reveal of the classic Aquaman look was a key part of the movie’s marketing push and it got fans (including me) even more excited about the movie. Yet I still wish we lived in a culture where moments like these could be held back for the actual film. There is plenty that is not shown in the trailers and ads, which is a gratifying surprise. However, it would have been such a showcase moment if the first time we saw Momoa in the orange (gold) and green armor was while watching the movie itself. I probably would’ve had to change my pants. (Maybe this is why Warner Bros. decided to go forward with the reveal.)
Aquaman’s suit is not the only one faithfully translated from comic book to screen. Longtime fans will love seeing the attire for Mera (Amber Heard), Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson) and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) brought to life from the page. And those unfamiliar with the characters should still be dazzled by how remarkable those costumes look.
But the lush visuals wouldn’t necessarily make for a good movie if there wasn’t also solid acting to carry the story along. Nearly as impressive is a cast that seems ideally suited for each role. Momoa is imposing and witty, but also surprisingly vulnerable when he needs to be. Mera is no mere love interest, but also a formidable warrior who pushes Curry to be his best self. Wilson conveys the right amount of righteous indignation, and is convincing enough to make you believe he could take Momoa in a duel. And Willem Dafoe’s Vulko comes off as the kind of mentor who could tutor a punk into a warrior.
It’s also worth mentioning that the script (credited to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, with Wan and famed DC Comics writer/creative executive Geoff Johns contributing to the story) does an artful job of juggling so many characters and providing each of them with strong motivations. It’s explained why, for example, Mera and Vulko want to help Curry and ascend him to Atlantis’s throne. But it’s done so efficiently, without weighing down the plot.
Seeing that Aquaman‘s story included two villains in Ocean Master and Black Manta raised some concerns of an overstuffed narrative like those in Spider-Man 3 or the Joel Schumacher Batman films. But Manta’s involvement with Aquaman and his reasons for wanting vengeance fit the story well and make him an integral character. Those who attach Black Manta to Aquaman and view him as his greatest arch-enemy (perhaps because of his role in the Super Friends cartoon) should be relieved.
Above all, it’s satisfying that Wan was able to deliver an Aquaman movie that follows through on its promise. Maybe it provides new life to the DC cinematic universe, but it’s more than capable of standing alone on its own merits. (International audiences have already responded, generating $266 million at the box office before the film even makes its U.S. debut.) It doesn’t matter if Aquaman eventually teams up with Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman on the big screen again. More Aquaman is enough, which should be good news for movie fans, whether you like superheroes or not.