By Bob Garver
Arthur “Aquaman” Curry (Jason Momoa) is one of the few superheroes who is seemingly more formidable as his alter ego than in his superhero form. Everything about the guy screams “tough,” from his muscular physique to his tapestry of tattoos to his battle-scarred face. His Justice League colleagues Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince are nowhere near as intimidating. An early scene in “Aquaman” sees a gang of biker types approach Arthur, apparently looking for a fight. In a normal superhero movie, this would be the scene where the mild-mannered hero demonstrates that their appearance is deceiving as they dispatch their underestimating adversaries with an early glimpse of their powers. But these goons can tell just by looking at Arthur that they’re outmatched, and the scene proceeds peacefully.
I bring up Arthur’s appearance because it’s the one interesting thing about him. Everything else is completely by-the-numbers. His origin is that he’s the son of underwater queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and surface-based lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison). Atlanna was allegedly executed by her people for having Arthur, and now as an adult he’s wracked with guilt, which he tempers with superhero work. As a half-Atlantean, he has water-based powers like the ability to breathe underwater and communicate with sea life. He already put these powers to use in “Justice League,” and early scenes of him as an adult in this movie see him take his anger out on a fleet of pirates led by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He uses his powers to get onto a submarine that’s being hijacked. But once he’s onboard, he mostly just relies on regular fighting. He causes Manta to suffer a personal loss, and a lifetime grudge is born.
But Arthur has bigger Atlanteans to fry. He’s informed by his princess love interest Mera (Amber Heard) that his power-hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is about to launch an attack on the surface world in his quest to rid the planet of the people who have poisoned its oceans (even the good guys can’t deny that he has a point). To defeat Orm, Arthur will have to either gain control of the Trident of Atlan and defeat his brother’s army in battle, or challenge and defeat his brother in one-on-one combat. The one-on-one combat sounds easier, but the problem is that Arthur doesn’t know how to fight underwater, no matter how much help he’s secretly received from his brother’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe). So it looks like it’s going to be a quest to retrieve the trident and then lead an army of sea creatures in an epic battle. I must stress that putting Arthur underwater is the only conceivable way this movie can convincingly have Jason Momoa at a disadvantage against Patrick Wilson. Even when Wilson was a Watchman, he was the wimpy one.
In a movie landscape highly populated (some would say overpopulated) by superhero movies, “Aquaman” is definitely… one of them. Momoa makes for a unique presence, but all the other actors are just playing archetypes. Atlantis and the undersea world are nice enough to look at, but the action scenes are weak and forgettable. The film is part of the DC Cinematic Universe, and that needs to be taken into consideration. If this were an MCU movie, its blandness would make it notably disappointing, but relative to other DCU entries, it actually comes off okay. It’s not as good as the groundbreaking “Wonder Woman,” but it’s not as irritating as all those dark-but-not-edgy critical flops that we’re used to getting from this franchise. There’s a much better superhero movie out right now with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” but if you’ve seen that and you still need a superhero fix, I suppose this one couldn’t hurt.
“Aquaman” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and for language. Its running time is 143 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at [email protected].