‘Aquaman’ Film Review: James Wan’s Outrageous Underwater Epic Rewrites the Superhero Rules

Jason Momoa’s Atlantean half-breed anchors both an all-star cast and a movie that swims in every direction, as fast as it can

Warner Bros

After decades of getting treated like a pop culture punchline, thanks almost entirely to “Super Friends” (with a little help from “Entourage”), Aquaman finally has his own feature film. It’s a weird and wonderful superhero adventure that strives — and almost succeeds — to be the most epic superhero movie ever made.

Directed by James Wan (“Furious 7”), “Aquaman” ventures from a neon, “Tron”-inspired Atlantis to ancient ruins straight out of “Indiana Jones,” and then into a nightmare realm of evil swarming fish monsters. It features gigantic battles between innocent crab people and bad guys riding armored sharks. At one point, a DayGlo rave octopus plays the drums while Aquaman fights for the throne of Atlantis in an underwater gladiator arena called “The Ring of Fire.”

To call this movie “big” is an understatement. “Aquaman” has damn near everything: Amber Heard wears a dress made out of domesticated jellyfish, Julie Andrews voices a Lovecraftian aquatic leviathan, Nicole Kidman eats a live goldfish (presumably fake), Willem Dafoe spins a trident so fast it creates an impenetrable saltwater shield.

At the center of it all is Jason Momoa, who plays Aquaman (a.k.a. Arthur Curry) like a shirtless, beer-swilling underachiever. Ever since his mom, Princess Atlanna (Kidman), was executed for falling in love with a human and having a hybrid child, Arthur has deemed himself unworthy of just about anything. It took a whole “Justice League” movie to get him to start acting like a superhero, and it’ll take a whole “Aquaman” movie to make him finally accept his mantle as the King of Atlantis.

Until then, Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) has the throne, and he’s using that power to assemble all of the undersea armies and to prepare a massive war against the surface-dwellers. In order to stop him, Arthur will have to team up with Mera (Heard), a princess from another kingdom, and find a fabled trident which, like Excalibur, can be wielded only by the one true king.

Easier said than done. Their globe-trotting journey will take them from the depths of the ocean to the Saharan desert and beyond. It’s a simple plot, but it’s sturdy enough, and Wan hangs a heck of a lot of action and opulence on it. We’ve come a long way from the slow scuba-diving “thrills” of “Thunderball.” The underwater fights in “Aquaman” are fast, furious, and take advantage of unusual surroundings for gyroscopic choreography where warriors can twist in any direction on the fly and zoom at their opponents like a rocket.

“Aquaman” isn’t like most other superhero movies. Our hero doesn’t spend much time in a recognizable world. Instead, he explores fantastical domains that seem straight out of the imagination of Robert E. Howard, which sets the film firmly in a related, but separate literary tradition. Wan’s “Aquaman” is pulp, through and through, and it’s as broad and outlandish as you could possibly hope for.

The cast, mostly, seems to be on board with that aesthetic. Momoa knows he’s playing a dashing megahunk. His first scene features an introductory hair whip straight out of “Gilda.” Heard is playing the Dejah Thoris role, even more heroic and capable than our protagonist. Wilson seems to have stepped straight out of John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” and Dafoe… actually, Willem Dafoe looks like he got lost on his way to a “Life Aquatic” reunion. He might be a little too weird an actor to play the straightforward role he’s got, as the king’s vizier and Aquaman’s swimming instructor.

There are other moments in which “Aquaman,” for all the slack we’re willing to cut it, strains credulity. At one point, when our heroes arrive in Africa, the soundtrack plays a remix of Toto’s “Africa,” which might make your eyes might roll all the way into the next theater. Also, Mera is pretty talented with a woodwind instrument for a character who’s hardly ever left the ocean. And one of the villains, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “The Get Down”) receives a perfectly functional superweapon from King Orm and then gets his own montage as he transforms it into something infinitely more likely to make his own head explode, as if that somehow makes him look smarter or cooler.

Wan’s film pushes too far sometimes, but that’s because it’s pushing as hard as it can. “Aquaman” does nothing by halves, ultimately reaping the rewards and occasionally suffering some consequences. Those aren’t bugs, they’re features. Wan seems to be operating under the philosophy that sci-fi/fantasy should stretch the limits of the imagination, even at the cost of possibly looking ludicrous. How much you personally agree with that philosophy will probably have a lot to do with whether or not you like “Aquaman.”

But either way, you’re in for a spectacle. “Aquaman” has been designed with the IMAX aspect ratio in mind, and Wan knows how to fill that frame. The fantastical set designs are brimming with detail, and the scenes where Arthur and Mera are frantically swimming away from a horde of killer ichthyoid monstrosities play with negative space, creating a sense of overwhelming, beautiful hopelessness. It’s a world where anything can happen, and it always looks amazing when it does.

“Aquaman” is a sword-and-sorcery sci-fi archaeology horror war superhero epic without shame. But why would it have shame? James Wan dives into the strangest caverns of DC’s vast mythologies and brings it all to the big screen, challenging you to accept just how unusual superhero stories can be.