Aquaman (aka Ahab) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s a brilliant moment in Geoff Johns’ New 52 run on Aquaman where the hero walks into a seafood restaurant. The human customers are shocked, with one asking why Aquaman would eat fish considering they’re his friends. A misconception, he explains. He talks to fish but fish are just too stupid to have meaningful conversations, a great point made by Dave Chappelle’s stand-up. Thankfully, James Wan’s Aquaman doesn’t go for these obvious jokes and answers to nobody for its earnest attempt to weave a hero fantasy of undersea kingdoms and ridiculous outfits.
Jason Mamoa returns to the role of Arthur Curry with the same charisma and muscles he boasted in last year’s Justice League. Don’t worry; you don’t need to catch up on that lukewarm superhero flick to be brought up to speed. The film maintains its central focus squarely on Arthur, from his half-human birth with his mother (Nicole Kidman) being an Atlantian princess. Angered by the departure of his mother and her mysterious disappearance in Atlantis, Arthur isn’t particularly keen to go back home, despite the pleas of the water-manipulating warrior Mera (Amber Heard). But when he realizes war is coming to the surface world, he’s gotta put a raincheck on the bar brawls and tangles with submarine pirates to sort the underwater kingdoms.
It helps that there’s an easier route to finally rule over the oceans. King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is Arthur’s Atlantian pure-blood brother and has chosen the political route. If he can convince the other kingdoms to put aside their differences and join him for an alliance on an attack against the humans, he can become the Ocean Master and rule with a silly piece of battle armor. Arthur can skip all this, however, by going treasure hunting. Sounds more fun for the bearded and buff warrior who would rather hash out differences in an arena of lava or tangle with frightening sea creatures.
The best and worst that can be said is that Wan wants to do so much and never fully settles on one tone. The underwater kingdom of Atlantis is a neon metropolis with a kaleidoscopic 1980s edge, complete with a synth soundtrack. That soundtrack shifts to a bouncy orchestra, however, when Arthur and Mera find themselves treasure hunting. Then manly rock when Arthur takes on a submarine of pirates. Then an epic score for a Lord of the Rings battle under the sea. Then horror for the attack of the piranha people. Oh, and you’ve gotta hit the somber notes for Arthur’s pathos, as well as the pathos of his secondary nemesis of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Though it’s very much all over the place in tone, I must admit the various flavors were all appetizing. I dug the Atlantian politics, especially when they involve Willem Dafoe as a conflicted counselor and Dolph Lundgren as a general, riding into battle on giant seahorses. Nicole Kidman gets in one of the scenes most fantastic one-take action sequences and Amber Heard makes great use of her abilities that allow water to be sucked out bodies. I hoped that the film would remember this ability from the comics and James Wan puts it to great use.
Wan does right by Aquaman, treating the character with dignity and keeping that silly tongue firmly in cheek. That commitment to the fantasy makes it all the more pleasing to be engaged with underwater politics, horrific fights with sea monsters, big action of underwater craft, etc. This desire to make a firmly adventurous picture props up the hero to such a degree I doubt anyone would speak lowly of the classic orange and green. You could call him goofy but I definitely wouldn’t mess with Jason Mamoa. And when it comes to a film that all leads up to a war of Atlantians versus crab people, you’ve gotta shoot forth boldly. Wan does so with gusto, making the unfamiliar finally admit that Aquaman is cool.