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Movie Review: Aquaman
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Director: James Wan
Writers: David Leslie, Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman
Studio: Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 | 143 Minutes
Release Date: December 21, 2018

Aquaman may be one of the most iconic superheroes in the DC lineup, but the character himself has a reputation for being one of the silliest superheroes. Furthermore, his introduction in Zach Snyder’s Justice League did not do him any favors. That being said, Jason Momoa‘s portrayal was a radical change for the one-dimensional pasty white hero. Instead, we got something that truly represented the character’s struggle of living in two worlds while acknowledging his overall cheesiness.

This helped lay the foundation for his own standalone film. Directed by James Wan, Aquaman sees the return of Momoa playing the aquatic eponymous hero in a globe-trotting superhero epic. By embracing many of the title character’s foibles and cheesiness, the film turns out to be one of the best DCEU entries to date. And while that is an easy bar to cross over, its world-building and willingness to have fun expands the cinematic universe and opens the door for the DCEU to explore bold and new possibilities. Check out my review of Aquaman here below.

Arthur Curry is a child of two worlds. As the son of Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), his human father, and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), his Atlantian mother, he was born into royalty. However, he is considered unworthy because he’s a bastard child, leaving his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to not only claim the throne, but also vie for the title of Ocean Master. When Orm declares war on the surface dwellers for all the crimes they have committed against the people and creatures of the ocean, it is up to Mera (Amber Heard), a warrior and daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Ludgren), and Nuidis Vulko (Willem DaFoe), an Atlantian vizier, to try to convince Arthur to return home and accept his responsibility of becoming the one true king before Orm lays waste to both worlds.

So Arthur and Mera go on a globe-trotting adventure that is akin to Indiana Jones and discover lost temples and forgotten cities along the way. On their journey to find the legendary trident that could unite the seven, a vengeful Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) will stop at nothing to kill Arthur and honor the memory of his father.

Rather than build upon the world that’s been built already, Wan lays a new foundation for the character. By doing so, we get a fun take on a familiar character arc. The film isn’t as concerned with what has happened previously leading up to Aquaman – although there is a slight nod to the Justice League. Although it does go through the same motions of his path to becoming king with interludes of young version of Arthur learning about his powers and training with the trident. There’s nothing particularly special about these moments unless you are fond of VFX work.

Still, Aquaman takes us to a whole new world. Literally. It steps away from the concrete and dark grays and depressing black atmospheres of DC cities, like Metropolis and Gotham, and dives right into a visually spectacular world full of bright neon colors and beautiful and fearsome creature, making Atlantis a true sight to behold. Kings ride on seahorses, mosasaurs, or great whites. But the majestic side to it also comes alive whenever a pod of orcas or dolphins slowly migrate. It adds to the juxtaposing scale when you see humans against the grand views of an underwater castle or the ocean itself.

The astonishing set pieces become even grander when seen on IMAX. Wide shots of Atlantis or the ocean itself show just how majestic the ocean can be. And at the same time, it shows how imposing it truly is during some of the biggest action sequences. The ambitious third act action sequence gives us a sense of how massive the scale is. It truly is a spectacle that can only be experienced on IMAX.

Then there is Wan’s use of tracking shots to keep audiences in the action without having to abruptly cut away to something else. In one scene we see Kidman engaged in a fight with three other Atlantian footmen. She swings her trident around to keep them back and thrusts it into them to take them down as the camera spins around her and zooms in and out. In another tracking shot, Arthur and Mera try to outrun Black Manta and Atlantian troops in Italy. Without any of those jarring cutaways, the film’s action stays at a nice and even pace, even when these action sequences increase your heart rate.

While a lot of the fun does come from the action, another good portion of it comes from Will Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick‘s willingness to play around with Arthur’s mythology and rep for being a silly character. Unlike some of the more dark and brooding heroes of the DCEU, Aquaman separates himself from the Justice League with his dude-bro millennial attitude. By accepting some of the more cheesier aspects of the character, Aquaman isn’t a pasty one-dimensional hero with heroic gimmicks. He is a fun contemporary hero who learns to accept that he is of two worlds.

And film plays around with the idea of a fish out of water. Quite literally. Aquaman’s hard-rocking attitude clashes with the high and mighty royalty of Atlantis. On the flip side of that Kidman’s Atlanna and Heard’s Mera get their fish out of water moments as the two get acquainted with drinking tea, petting dogs, and Italy’s culinary delights. So while there are funny moments to cut through some of the melodrama, some of those royal, political, and environmental subtext can prolong the film. It hurts the pacing. Still, it’s funny to watch Kidman’s Atlanna eat a goldfish, an octopus bang on bongos to rile a crowded coliseum up for a gladiator battle, and a soldier dunk his head in water.

If there is one thing to look forward to, it’s Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta. He’s a rare kind of villain in comic book movies, one who finally ends the long-running trend of terrible DCEU villains. The arc that he is given and the motivation behind killing Arthur makes for a very well-rounded baddie. One that you could actually sympathize with. Watching his journey to reach his goal is so much fun. He even gets an Iron Man moment when Orm gives him Atlantian weaponry, which Manta modifies to create a strikingly intimidating suit that is equipped with retractable blades and visors that shoot lasers.

There’s no doubt that Aquaman is one of the best films that DCEU has to offer. Not that it was a difficult task to accomplish considering the rather low bar the DCEU films have set. And even though there are a few narrative flaws that make the film a bit sluggish, it commits by embracing some of the more cheesier aspects of the character and his comic book world. All of that makes Aquaman a thoroughly entertaining film that puts the DCEU in the right direction. Let’s just hope it can stay that way for the foreseeable future.

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