A few years ago when it was first announced that Jason Momoa had been cast as Aquaman for BATMAN VS SUPERMAN and the first photos were released, it’s safe to say I was unimpressed. And that’s putting it mildly. The hair, the tattoos, the chain mail – I had no interest in what I derisively referred to as “Hot Topic Aquaman.”
Jump ahead to yesterday morning, when I sat in a movie theatre for two and a half hours and was delighted top to bottom by one of the most fun, action-packed, emotional and visually captivating movies I’ve seen in a long time. And by far the most fun I’ve had at a DC movie since maybe SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE in 1978.
And as for Jason Momoa, what can I say? Hail to the king. He’s Aquaman now, and I’m a believer. He’s definitely more engaged here and gives a better performance than we saw in JUSTICE LEAGUE, in part surely because he realizes he’s anchoring the production, and in part no doubt because he’s served by a much better script. Regardless, Momoa is funny and charming throughout, but really brings the gravitas when he needs to. He’s also well countered by Amber Heard’s Mera, who keeps up with him in the action department throughout most of the film (it really is practically an Aquaman/Mera “buddy movie”). The filmmakers wisely play the Arthur/Mera romance really slowly, letting the characters get to know each other, and when we finally get that big moment where the two get together, they play it for all it’s worth – I’ve never seen a kiss shot like the famous spinning AVENGERS ASSEMBLE shot from the first AVENGERS film, but it totally works.
But where AQUAMAN really shines is its supporting cast. Patrick Wilson surprised me with his portrayal of Arthur’s villainous brother Orm, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes the most of his time as Black Manta, almost stealing the movie in my estimation. Here’s a movie with two great villains that knows how to use them well. And how to dress them well. Not only was Black Manta’s look note-perfect, but when Orm takes on the mantle of Ocean Master, he even wears the classic silver helmet, and keeps it on.
Also shining was Willem DaFoe as Aquaman’s mentor Vulko, whom we see both in the present-day and in flashbacks training young Arthur to use his powers. Another surprise: who would have expected to see Dolph Lundgren in a meaty supporting part as Mera’s father King Nereus? And he delivers!
The real heart of the movie can be found in Temura Morrison and Nicole Kidman’s portrayals of Aquaman’s parents Tom Curry and Queen Atlanna. I really didn’t expect the film to center so much on Aquaman’s origins and family, and the material, some of DC Comics’ earliest, is used here to marvelous effect.
And as much as I loved the performances here, AQUAMAN’s visuals are alone enough to recommend the movie. The worlds and tribes of Atlantis are like nothing else we’ve ever seen in a DC or Marvel film, and the mechanics of filming all these actors “swimming” must have been a nightmare to achieve, but it always comes across on film as completely realistic and natural.
As for tone, there’s none of the usual DC grimdark to be found here, just as in its predecessor WONDER WOMAN, so it looks as though Warner Brothers has finally learned its lesson. Even better (and just a hint of a SPOILER here, so consider yourself warned), this film actually takes the usual overly grim tone of a DC film and makes it a teachable moment, with Arthur making a poor decision for the sake of looking like a badass, paying for it later, and learning a better way.
Heroes acting like heroes. Imagine that.