Get our free newsletter
There are two types of moviegoers out there: those who roll their eyes when they see Dolph Lundgren fire lasers from the CGI sea creature he’s riding, and those who smile at it. Aquaman is unabashedly for the latter camp. Directed with zeal by James Wan, this superhero adaptation takes a “no idea is too stupid” approach. Everything in the movie—whether it’s the acting, heavy-handed mythology, and immersive underwater vistas—is downright silly. “Go big or go home” does not even begin to cover it.
Plot is not why you see a movie like this, but Aquaman borrows liberally from so many classic legends it’s kind of admirable. Like Wonder Woman and Superman, two fellow members of the Justice League, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is a hero caught between two worlds. His father is a surface-bound lighthouse keeper, while his mother (Nicole Kidman) was the queen to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis. The current king is Orm (Patrick Wilson), a zealot who wants to launch a war on the surface world as vengeance for our nonstop pollution. Another Atlantean named Mera (Amber Heard) wants to stop the war, so she recruits Arthur for a coup against Orm. This leads them on an Arthurian quest (get it?) for a missing weapon, whose power will give its bearer complete control over the sea.
If Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are an attempt at gritty realism, then Wan’s film is an embrace of psychedelia. Atlantis is a wonder of luminescent detail, right down to using jellyfish as part of a regal costume. Wan and his production team take a page from The Little Mermaid, stretching their imagination to see how such a world could possibly function (at one point, a giant octopus plays the drums). This sensory overload is a key to how best to appreciate the film: you do not have to stop thinking, exactly, but you do have to meet it on its level. Campy performances from Wilson, Kidman, and Willem Dafoe are a helpful guide because they know they’re slumming it, so while you’re all here, you might as well clap along as Orm leads a cavalry of sharks.
Momoa plays Arthur like Khal Drogo, his character from Game of Thrones, mixed with a surfer bro. Although Arthur uses nonchalance as a protective shield, Momoa’s natural charisma and infectious fun help carry the dumbest scenes. Put another way, at Julliard they do not teach you how to convincingly ride a Lovecraftian sea monster into battle, but Momoa makes it look easy. His scenes with Heard, however, are not as convincing: they have little chemistry, even during a picturesque sojourn to Sicily, so Heard has all the charm of a cold fish.
You may recall that Wan has directed many horror films, including Saw and The Conjuring. There are flashes of those sensibilities to Aquaman, as many dialogue scenes are interrupted by jarring explosions. Like any self-respecting horror director, he knows when things get too boring and that audiences clamor for the good stuff. There is so much action in Aquaman, with most of it freed from the earthbound laws of physics, that the film runs the risk of overfeeding its audiences with pop cinema spectacle. This “more is more” approach makes the case for its own excess: pesky things like structure and taste scarcely matter when there is another duel, betrayal, or laser blast.
Mary Poppins Returns, Disney’s long-awaited sequel to the beloved live action musical, opens in theaters this week, too. Julie Andrews helped make Mary Poppins a household name, but she is not in Returns. Instead, she has a cameo appearance in Aquaman providing the voice of Karathen, a mythical sea beast that looks and acts like a hybrid of Cthulhu and a hermit crab. It is unclear why Andrews chose this film, instead of reprising the franchise that helped make her famous, but perhaps her decision is meant to suggest we should not embrace nostalgia for its own sake.
Indeed, Aquaman is defiantly its own thing. It eschews the pomposity of Infinity War and Justice League, while preserving all the glorious imagery that comic books sometimes promise. What ultimately holds it together is that this film is self-aware about its silliness, to the point that it is often sublime.
Aquaman opens Friday in theaters everywhere.