The first stand-alone film to feature DC Comics’ would-be King of Atlantis, “Aquaman” is 20,000 leagues better than “Suicide Squad,” “Man of Steel” or any of Ben Affleck’s midlife crisis movies. Still, you can’t help but feel that there’s more to dredge up here.
“Aquaman” starts off, as all heroes’ journeys do, with Nicole Kidman washing ashore. Shiny and unitard-clad, she’s found unconscious by a lighthouse operator named Tom (Temuera Morrison), who’s instantly smitten. She tells him her name is Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, and that she’s on the run from an arranged marriage under the sea. Then — swam, bam, thank you, ma’am! — Atlanna has Tom’s baby.
That kid grows up to be Arthur (Jason Momoa), a world-famous man-fish who can swim missile-fast, breathe underwater and chat with tuna. In his spare time, the muscle-y rebel rescues Russian submarines from pirates, and fans badger him for selfies at the local pub. How Arthur has evaded government laboratories and paparazzi is anybody’s guess.
Except for missing his mom, who left to protect him, Arthur’s mostly content until Mera (Amber Heard), fiancée of his younger half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), comes to him with a plea: Help! Orm plans to wage a brutal war against the land people, potentially leading to billions of deaths. To stop the bloodshed, Arthur must take his rightful place on the throne.
From there, the movie becomes a mostly fun and effective blend of action sequences, Indiana Jones-style treasure hunting and (apologies) fish-out-of-water antics. Many of those gags are handed to Heard, who’s stolen Ariel’s wig from “The Little Mermaid” and could credibly begin belting out “Part of Your World” at any moment.
Too “Little Mermaid”-like are the Atlantis scenery and costumes. The city is a huge, luminescent coral structure that boasts technology more advanced than our own, yet has a chintzy Hanna-Barbera quality to it. Considering Aquaman isn’t the known quantity Batman and Superman are, director James Wan could’ve been more visually creative, as Patty Jenkins was with “Wonder Woman.” But Aquaman’s scaly costume is exactly the same as the cartoon’s.
The villains could also use a boost. Wilson’s Orm is a blend of “Game of Thrones” evil king Joffrey Baratheon and a corporate vice president. At no point do you believe that such a stringy guy is going to beat Aquaman, even if he’s buds with Dolph Lundgren. More threatening, but ultimately pointless, is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta. The bug-eyed pirate is out to avenge his dad’s death by Aquaman, but only takes part in one solid action sequence on the streets of Sicily, Italy.
Momoa, however, makes an imposing and likable hero. For someone so wet, he has a delightfully dry sense of humor, and you don’t need to use your imagination to believe he can inflict serious damage. He can. If only he broadened his emotional range. For now, Momoa has just one: ambivalence.
An “Aquaman” sequel is reportedly in the works. The series already has a strong leading man and a feel for an epic. The filmmakers just need to find the heart of their ocean.