Aquaman is the dorkiest fucking movie. I think I slightly loved it. This is a film that luxuriates in all of the absolute dumbest bullshit of superhero comics: the overwrought dialogue in which words like Cylinder and Trench are repeatedly declaimed with unmistakable Capital Letters; unbelievably squirrelly concept like sharks with laser cannons on their heads treated with absolute awestruck wonder by the solemn low angle; a plot that starts out as a MacGuffin hunt and quickly grows into something so far away from where it started that it's hard to actually trace it, though it absolutely definitely makes sense on a scene-to-scene basis; stakes that are not super-clear, but it is clear from the distressed looks on everybody's faces that they are Very High Stakes. The film is basically 143 minutes of this stuff - these plot points, these lines, these dramatic poses with people thrusting their various chests out until you wonder if literally every single character has a horribly bent spine. It takes all of this extremely seriously.

And also, somehow, it doesn't really take any of this seriously at all. As is perhaps attested to by the presence of sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads, there's a level of po-faced ridiculousness on display that never comes along and says "this is a joke", but it's presented with juuuust enough of a wink that you can either choose to view it as comic or not. In either case, it's a film made very much with a sincere love of burly comic book kitsch. I cannot say what relationship director James Wan (whose sincere masculine kitsch bona fides include Furious 7, the most deeply sentimental of the Fasts & Furiouses) has with comic books, but it sure does feel like he's loving the hell out of having a chance to make a comic book movie, one inΒ  which every third shot feels like a splash page, and no idea is too asinine to avoid rendering in eminently costly CGI. It is the pulpiest major superhero movie in a lot of years, the superhero movie for people who loved Jupiter Ascending and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Not that Aquaman is at the level of either of those underappreciated masterpieces, but it's basically as close as a movie can get when it also has to fulfill the needs of a major studio tentpole.

The first movie based on a DC movie since the disastrous, dull Justice League (a film explicitly referenced in Aquaman's dialogue, which seems like tempting fate), Aquaman is everything that film wasn't, but should have been. Point in fact, this feels almost like a film directed by Zack Snyder, who gave us not only Justice League, but also Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before that, and Man of Steel first of all. Except not our Zack Snyder. This is some other, good Zack Snyder, one who has a sense of humor, who enjoys bright lighting and saturated colors to go along with his extreme slow-motion and self-consciously iconic images. It has all of the strengths of Snyder's DC trilogy (a heightened sense of mythic grandeur, a willingness to treat its characters as larger-than-life and its stories as fundamentally operatic), while avoiding most of his trashiest mistakes (being unsmiling, sluggish, and grey, for starters).

This is all inside a movie that's basically boilerplate (specifically, it's basically Black Panther): Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), half-breed son of a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the queen of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), has taken to helping out with crises at sea in the wake of his reluctant heroism back in the Movie That Should Not Have Been Named. But there is a greater crisis still: his younger half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), current king of Atlantis, is ready to finally get his revenge on the human world for centuries of polluting the Earth's oceans. To stop a war that will result in millions of deaths on both sides, the king's vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and fiancΓ©e Mera (Amber Heard) have come to Arthur to beg him to take the throne that's rightfully his, but first they need to help him find a legendary lost trident using only a scattered handful of cryptic archaeological clues. Or rather, first they need to convince him that he should give a damn about the undersea civilisation that he's been steadfastly ignoring ever since it executed his beloved mother for treason.

A little bit of Chosen One origin story, a little bit of Indiana Jones; nothing is new here, and it's only somewhat elevated by the details (the middle of the film, the trident hunt, is particularly cluttered and ill-conceived - a major plot point involves an ancient Atlantean king, dead before the rise of any human civilization, knowing the exact position of a Roman statue). But it's substantially elevated by the gung-ho visual style Wan and company bring out. Much of this is just about the poses, the garish design - this is a luscious and gaudy world of underwater marvels straight from the imagination of a 1950s pulp magazine illustrator, every word of which I mean as a compliment - the strong colors, which feel like nothing in any recent big-budget live-action superhero movie outside of Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel. But there are also some moments where the filmmakers go all out and craft a perfect little gem of popcorn movie joy; I am thinking chiefly of an action sequence cross-cutting between Arthur and Mera as they fend of bad guys and demolish an ancient Sicilian town square, with Wan using lots of elaborate deep staging and zooms to link the two spaces of action. I am also thinking of the scene of where a giant octopus plays drums.

That last thing brings me back to my point: surely this is all knows that it's silly and trivial and not to be taken seriously at all. And with comic book movies (encouraged by comic book movie fans) having spent the decade since The Dark Knight disappearing further and further up their collective ass, it's nice to have one decide that all of this is dumb as fuck, that it is pleasurable because it is dumb as fuck, and embrace that dumbness. Hence we get the better-than-it-needs-to-be cast (Kidman or Dafoe would be noteworthy; Kidman and Dafoe is astonishing. And Wilson and Dolph Lundgren, though not better than this kind of material, aren't slouches) encouraged to ham it up, such that even actors I have only ever disliked, one of them in this exact same role (Momoa, Heard), feel free, fresh and charismatic. It's pretty clear that the motivating question at any point was never "is this good?" or "is this meaningful?" but "is this something I would have thought was cool when I was nine years old?", and luckily for all of us that James Wan's inner nine-year-old has such an unparalleled sense of what dopey nerd shit is also cool.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder / Whedon, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (Snyder, 2021)
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021)