Imagine if someone cut together all the biggest action sequences from the last few decades of Hollywood, resulting in a mash of Tron, Avatar, Clash Of The Titans, Superman, Jurassic Park, and Gladiator. Imagine a film where an octopus gets a drum solo, and it isn’t among the top ten weirdest moments. Welcome to Aquaman, where you won’t have a clue what’s going on, but you won’t be able to look away either.
Our lead is Aquaman/Arthur Curry, a portrait of the superhero as bar-brawler. This sometime Justice Leaguer (it’s barely mentioned) is larger than life and twice as fond of a beer. Arthur gives the impression Momoa just rolled out of bed, went surfing and drove from the beach straight to set, and the film’s all the better for his slightly hungover air. But instead we cut away to endless Atlantean politicking, with Patrick Wilson’s CGI-suited Orm floating around on a war-shark (which is a thing?), working on his Julian Sands impression. Orm wants a war with humanity, so executes a false-flag submarine attack. That might lead another hero on a film-long quest to prove humanity’s innocence, but here it’s barely mentioned again; nor is a first-act tsunami felt around the world. There are bigger, er, fish to fry.
There’s entertainment in watching something so outrageously over-the-top.
Instead we’re on two parallel but equally bonkers quests. Orm must unite his kingdom of Atlantis with Dolph Lundgren’s seahorse riders, Djimon Hounsou’s mer-men and Brian Blessed’s crab dudes. Meanwhile, Arthur must escape a place, and decipher a thing to find another thing in order to earn the throne and stop the war. His primarily human upbringing means he’s a fish out of water whenever he’s in the water, following the long-ago disappearance of his mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). For guidance and a modicum of sense Arthur relies entirely on Amber Heard’s Mera, a Little Mermaid cosplayer who is his main source of exposition.
The plot is honestly a mess: over-complicated yet predictable. What makes the film passably entertaining is that director James Wan throws astonishing amounts of action at the wall, and much of it sticks (though not always together). There’s entertainment in watching something so outrageously over-the-top, exploding in such strange ways. Just when you think you have a handle on it, something bizarre will happen. Nicole Kidman defending her baby son by taking out a death squad, say, or villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, underserved) inexplicably detouring to the North Sea (the film’s geography is deeply non-specific), or a Star Wars-alike battle on the seabed.
Momoa takes every inch of space the film gives him and runs a mile on sheer roguish charm, and Wan is a sufficiently gifted action director not just to keep you watching but to regularly dazzle you. But it’s all just so much. You sense that they didn’t trust this hero to hold our attention, and they really should have done. He’s more fun than any octopoid percussionist.