Jason Momoa is a triumph as the sodden superhero, his Arthur Curry initially suffering that paradoxical yet all too familiar mixture of self-doubt and self-belief – before accepting that his place in Atlantean history is a role he was born to inhabit.
Gritty and grubby, genial and eager, clever yet sometimes a bit clueless, Arthur starts out with a fixed sense of right and wrong. He certainly looks the part, and is already becoming a worldwide sensation. But he’s also a hero who has yet to be tested or questioned.
Even without his genetic inheritance it seems appropriate that this man weighted down by so much – history, expectation, self-blame, his family’s actions – would find the lure of the sea so strong. It’s in the sea we feel weightless and unencumbered (until that moment when we are half-in and half-out, and are temporarily at our most cumbersome).
This kind of weight dissipates once you accept your role in life and find your path, and Aquaman follows that path.
It’s a familiar route that director James Wan has somehow made feel new and fresh against the superheroes we’ve had before, be they jokey, pratfall-inclined, intense or earnest.
Arthur is not as hilarious, as intense or as earnest, yet somehow finishes the movie as an uber-superhero, with the potential to unite those living on the surface and beneath the seas. Aquaman fizzes with joy and there’s something incredibly endearing about its titular hero, which makes it easy to ignore (or indeed simply miss) the clunkiness of some of the dialogue.
The watery worlds mix age and modernity, history and sci fi, nature and riches, barnacle-covered statues and Vegas-like coloured sparkle. Aquaman’s world-building is often sketchy; we see some of the other kingdoms that split from Atlantis itself when they were submerged millennia ago – including the Kingdom of Fishermen and the Kingdom of the Brine – only briefly, during this episode at least. But it still feels like a fully formed collection of (mostly) civilisations under the waves.
Arthur’s warlike half-brother, Orm, King of Atlantis (Patrick Wilson), is determined to bring destruction to the surface. He would claim to be simply retaliating for years of our despoiling of the seas; though the chance to be crowned Ocean Master, despite it sounding like a frozen fish importer, is a key driver.
(Orm’s first act is to send giant waves which decimate coastal communities and throw back onto our shores the rubbish we’ve been merrily chucking into the seas for so long.)
Arthur’s parents should never have met. Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, regal and motherly) is a queen fleeing an arranged marriage, Tom (Temuera Morrison) is the lighthouse keeper on whose rocky shore she washes up. They fall in love and have a baby, naming him for a mythical king, before she decides to leave him with his father for safety and return to Atlantis before her husband’s soldiers drag her back anyway.
This is a story based on a myth, something the Atlanteans are experts at; it’s a civilisation that uses fable and legend to justify revenge. The nod to King Arthur becomes a quest of bravery and birthright as “our” Arthur searches for the lost trident of King Atlan to defeat Orm, a trident which only the one true king can retrieve.
It’s also biblical, of course; at one point wily Atlantean elder Vulko (Willem Dafoe) announces “Your king is risen!” which, I must admit, only sounded preposterous to me after the event.
Initially, as the adult Arthur starts to use his powers to help people in trouble on the sea, he’s a lone wolf; and although Vulko has been secretly training him for years, without anyone to compare himself to he has had no way to develop his powers and a more complex understanding of morality.
He also creates enemies. Rescuing a submarine of Russian sailors which has been taken over by pirates, his actions result in pirate leader Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) developing an all-consuming grudge against Aquaman (though rather an unfair one).
Arthur’s journey is as much about understanding the difference between guilt and humility as of finding the trident: overcoming his guilt at existing, and what his birth set in motion for his mother. He feels as if he belongs nowhere, called a half-breed by undersea dwellers and treated as something of a pet superhero by landlubbers.
Forced to take on Orm, Arthur has to understand that humility is essential in a king but guilt is not – and that he’s in a unique position to be a bridge between worlds.
The costumes are stunning and the under-sea effects very impressive. Leaders meet amid towering crumbling statues, riding giant seahorses. Aquaman and Orm first do battle to cheering crowds in Atlantis’s very own underwater colosseum, a bubbling volcano spitting fire below them. The terrifying, toothy creatures of the Trench swarm over Aquaman and Mera’s little fishing boat as they try to navigate through the storms to where the magical trident might be hidden.
It’s a quality cast all round. Amber Heard is very good as Orm’s fiancee Mera, risking everything to help Arthur, teaching him in a few hectic moments what he needs to know against the years Vulko has been slowly nurturing the boy. As a princess – the child of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), ruler of Xebel and Orm’s ally – Mera is well-placed to help the nascent superhero.
Momoa is so perfectly cast that his lines, which are often ridiculous even by superhero standards, almost sound perfect too. Even I, while falling head over heels for this movie, eventually realised he sounded a bit daft; ponderously pronouncing on, well, I can’t even remember. He looks like a man of the sea too, with his saltwater curls and myriad tattoos.
There’s also a cheesy Sicilian market scene which should be in a Hallmark movie, though it redeems itself as the flower-shopping and grape-tasting is shattered by Manta, looking for Mera and Arthur.
This is a lengthy film but a well-paced one, that doesn’t seem as long as its nearly 2.5 hour running time. And it needs to be a decent length, as we go from before Arthur’s birth through to the present day, with flashbacks through Atlantean history, as well as setting up future events for the franchise (one of Aquaman’s enemies certainly doesn’t have much to do in this movie and seems eclipsed by other, more complex villains).
Aquaman has a joi-de-vivre running through it, though it’s not particularly joke-filled. Momoa’s gags tend to be of the “oh shit!” variety, as they realise they’re heading towards some other sodden calamity, but as an actor and as a character Momoa/Arthur/Aquaman are so personable and engaging it all somehow works.
Just be aware that the salt water gets everywhere. I even found some in my eye.
Note: There is one mid-credits scene involving one of Aquaman’s new enemies.
Watch the Aquaman trailer: