The exact moment I knew Aquaman was a certain kind of special, was when a giant octopus started playing the war drums. And to be honest, it only got zanier from there.
Aquaman has always been the butt of the joke. The one superhero who seems to have had the rockiest transition from the golden age of comics to the new hyper-serious world the DC comics inhabit today, decades of pop culture have seen the king of the sea be continuously kicked into the dirt, with shows from Robot Chicken to Teen Titans Go roasting the man like a Polynesian Pig. When Aquaman was sloppily introduced into Warner Bros’ Justice League film, it was clear that Zack Snyder tried desperately to reverse the narrative; trying everything he could to make Aquaman as badass as possible, casting the most intimidating man possible, giving him some rad tattoos and having him chug a beer in slow motion while Icky Thump blared in the background. Suffice to say, it didn’t work. And by all laws of nature, a full-on Aquaman movie shouldn’t have worked either. But in a rare act of genius from the DC studio, James Wan was hired to direct this movie. And Wan, god bless him, made the smartest decision of all. People think Aquaman is a joke because he talks to fish and wears a gold swimsuit? That’s fine, let’s embrace it. In fact, let’s go so far into the realm of the absurd that we come out the other side with something truly insane. And that is exactly what he did.
James Wan’s Aquaman is a film so joyously ridiculous that there were times in the theater that I just had to laugh out loud with how much fun I was having. Wan, if you haven’t heard of him, is a legendary director in the world of horror. He’s one of the names behind this century’s most influential horror films, bringing to life Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring. His first foray into action movies was on 2015’s Furious 7, a movie I have not seen because frankly who has the time for such things? However, it does make sense for Warner Brothers to look at the seventh Fast and the Furious movie, a film praised for being “big dumb fun” and say, sure, let’s give him the fish movie. I will say that this is unlike anything the man has ever made before, being more akin to the wild imagination of a Luc Besson tentpole than a grimdark ghost story. It’s like he thought of everything anyone ever joked about being in an Aquaman film, be it talking to whales, fighting a kraken, or Dolph Lundgren riding a massive seahorse and said, “yeah, let’s just do that.” And it works! This movie knows exactly what it is, wastes no time on pretense and probably features more animated sharks than a VHS copy of Shark Tale played on a 24-hour-loop. Granted, it’s not high cinema or anything and if political deliberations with merpeople or an epic quest to retrieve a magic trident don’t sound like fun to you, then you’re probably not going to like this movie. But, I mean, come on. Lighten up.
In the movie’s defense, it’s not just some silly fantasy flick, it is pretty well-directed and is competently acted. Jason Momoa is a charismatic lead and has just the right amount of goofiness without being an obnoxiously self-aware Howard The Duck. Amber Heard is surprisingly very charming as Lady Mera, Aquaman’s heroic love-interest. Plus, as an added bonus, Willem Dafoe wields an Atlantian Spear in this movie, so you can’t help but love that. If there was a weakest link amongst the cast, I guess it would be Patrick Wilson as the big bad King Orm, whose nefarious quest to become Ocean Master anchors this picture. He doesn’t give a bad performance, he just feels less sincere than the other actors in the movie. There is a lot of CGI in this movie and some of it looks better than others. However, there is a surprising amount of real sets and costumes in this film, dare I say more than any of the previous films in DC’s cinematic universe. Most notably, there is a great scene set on a submarine that is well-choreographed, and features real stuntmen on a real set wearing real costumes. In a film landscape increasingly built of digitally-created flubber, it is nice to see that James Wan was able to find opportunities for tangibility. The movie does lag at times and the film’s climax comes close to being a little too bloated, but it immediately redeems itself when Aquaman calls upon a bunch of fish to help him save the day. Honestly, I really enjoyed this movie, both for the sheer audacity of it all, but also for its endearing heart at the core. As will hopefully be printed on the DVD cover, “It’s A Real Splash!”