As I opined to a friend before seeing AQUAMAN, I’m not here for the story. Jason Momoa, the hunky actor with a pronounced sense of mischief and an irresistible sense of humor, is the draw as the putative king of Atlantis tasked with saving the planet from a no-win war between the land folk (that would be us), and the descendants of Atlantis, who have their own internecine issues with which to grapple. The good news is that Momoa and his mammoth charm more than carry a film that is decidedly not the most original of super-hero tales, but that is one that boasts brisk direction by James Wan, a man at complete ease with the enormity of the special effects required and with the banter between Aquaman and his leading lady, the flame-haired Princess Mar (Amber Heard).
As we learn, Aquaman, or Arthur as he was dubbed by his parents, is the perfect person to bring peace between land and sea. His father (Temuera Morrison) is a human lighthouse keeper. His mother (Nicole Kidman), is the mother-of-pearl swathed cutie who washed up onto the shore and into Dad’s heart. Their idyllic life of shabby chic splendor there at the edge of the sea doesn’t last, of course, and in order to protect Arthur from harm, Mom tearfully takes her leave in order to marry the Atlantean man she was escaping in the mother-of-pearl cat suit.
And thus do twenty-five or so years go by. Arthur has taken it upon himself to do good deeds in the deep after careful tutelage in the art of combat by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), sent by Mom to protect Arthur in her absence. It’s going well until Arthur’s half-brother and current king of Atlantis, Orm (Patrick Wilson), decides that not only does he have to save his kingdom from the pollution coming from the surface world, he has to subjugate the other underwater kingdoms in order to do so. That he might also be harboring some ill-will towards the brother he’s never met, as in Mom liked him best, is a definite possibility. Just to keep things lively, there’s also Black Mantis (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the son and grandson of pirates with his own grudge against Aquaman.
The plot revolves around Arthur finding the legendary Lost Trident of Atla, which will prove he’s the rightful ruler of Atlantis, and of Arthur and Mar falling in love despite themselves. Like I said, not the more original of premises, but Momoa and Heard have a nice chemistry during their tart exchanges, while Wilson is properly, ahem, slimey, and Dafoe wiry and stalwart in that warm avuncular way that the story demands.
As for those special effects, they’re worth every penny to see them on the biggest screen you can find. The battle sequences are suitably explosive; the trampling of a sleepy Sicilian village by underwater storm troopers refreshingly wry; the decades of pollution being returned via tsunamis to the land is bracing; and the art direction that uses jellyfish as both lamps and as fashion accessories is imaginative as well as dazzling. Through it all Momoa’s muscle ripple as the camera objectifies his beauty in a way that is usually restricted to women. In case we think that it’s not intentional, our first shot of the adult Arthur has him tossing his hair playfully as he looks at us over one shoulder and asks permission to come aboard. Yet, he is also the incarnation of super hero as regular dude. For most of his exploits, he’s in jeans as he parries the flowery speech of the other Atlanteans with quips and there is little doubt that what he most wants in the world is cold beer at his favorite dive bar.
AQUAMAN, being true to the super hero genre, leaves us with a cliffhanger after the first run of credits. The teaser reveals a not unexpected twist, and sets up the sequel’s story with a tidy efficiency. I can’t wait.