Take a dehumidifier to “Aquaman,” and after all the water evaporates, what’s left is a garden-variety superhero movie.
That so much of it takes place underwater, in a phantasmagorical undersea kingdom, guarantees that there is cool stuff to look at even when the screenplay or performances don’t measure up. Warriors ride snarling giant seahorses and great white sharks, crab-men scuttle into battle, floating jellyfish light up the screen. Think of it as the world’s biggest, most expensive aquarium.
Director James Wan, who brought the “Fast and the Furious” to satisfyingly ridiculous heights with “Furious 7,” has more fun with the DC Universe than in previous entries like “Batman Vs. Superman” and “Suicide Squad.” The film is colorful and zippy, more than a little campy, and Jason Momoa has a ball playing Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman, as sort of a hard-partying bro. And any movie that features an octopus playing the bongo drums can’t be accused of taking itself too seriously.
The awkward prologue tells the story of how a lonely fisherman (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna, the runaway Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), fell in love and had son Arthur. Atlanna is hauled back to Atlantis, but Arthur’s lineage gives him a claim to being King of Atlantis if he chooses.
This doesn’t sit well with the reigning King, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is marshaling the people of the sea to wage war against us landlubbers. In one nice ecologically minded touch, Orm’s first salvo is to throw back onto land all the garbage that’s been tossed into the ocean.
After some grumbling, Arthur is convinced by Mera (Amber Heard), an undersea princess fated to marry Orm, to prove he’s the rightful king of Atlantis, take over the throne and stop the surf ‘n’ turf war before it begins. It’s a quest that takes them to the bottom of the ocean and to some unlikely locations on land, including a Sicilian village and the middle of the Sahara. Shoehorned in there as a backup villain is Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Aquaman’s archenemy in the comics. But the movie never figures out a convincing way to integrate him into the main storyline.
The plot is threadbare, existing just barely to get the heroes from one heavily CGI-ed location and big fight to another. Screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall nearly choke on all the exposition they need to deliver, between the power plays in Atlantis and all the trials Arthur has to go through to become King, including finding a golden trident with magical powers. And the dialogue really needed another pass. It’s painful to watch good actors like Willem Dafoe, as Aquaman’s mentor, deliver so many wince-inducing lines.
The focus here is on the spectacle, with realism taking a back seat to awesomeness. There is one impressively conceived long shot of Aquaman pursued by hundreds of monsters as he dives deep underwater, lit only by his red flare, that feels inspired by Hieronymous Bosch.
As Aquaman, Momoa isn’t a revelation on the level that Gal Gadot was as “Wonder Woman,” although he certainly looks the part, and is good with a “This is awesome!” one-liner. The movie makes much of the biracial heritage of both Momoa and Aquaman (Orm even sneers that he’s a “mongrel”), but that theme isn’t developed nearly as well as the feminist undertones of “Wonder Woman.”
All in all, “Aquaman” feels like a step up from recent DC disappointments, but it left me thirsty for the movie it could have been.