Movie review: 'Aquaman'

Horror veteran James Wan breathes new life into troubled DC Extended Universe with character-driven coming-of-age story and side of bombastic action

Great characters, excellent action and comic-accurate costumes are the biggest draws of the film, which carves its own identity in the DC pantheon.

Director: James Wan; Story by: Geoff Johns

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Warner Bros. and DC's answer to the Hollywood juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now 5 movies old, but as far as being received by fans and critics, the franchise has had little luck. Now, Aquaman gets an entire film to himself in an origin story that somehow manages to be a coming-of-age story as well, filled with dazzling underwater scenes, a solid pace and some well-written characters disguising the otherwise standard fare of a plot.

The story begins in 1985, with a voiceover from Jason Momoa's Arthur Curry explaining how his parents, Tom Curry, a human lighthouse keeper and Atlanna, an Atlantean princess came together and found love in the form of Arthur Curry. Shortly after Arthur's birth, however, Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis to fulfill her duty. Years later, Arthur - who has grown to loathe Atlantis - is forced to return to the fray to stop his half-brother Orm from waging a war on the surface with only Mera and his one Atlantean friend, Vulko, helping him out.

The plot is as barebones as it gets: Arthur grows from boy to teenager to adult, with various little snippets of his life detailing how he got where he is at the beginning of the film: hating himself and Atlantis for banishing his mother to 'The Trench' - vicious, mindless beasts that were once part of Atlantis. Arthur blaming himself for his mother's fate drives his entire character arc and interactions with his fellow humans and Atlanteans. He's well-meaning, but really comes off as someone who doesn't care about other people or Atlantis till it hits home - literally - in a massive tidal wave that all but destroys his surface home.

Meanwhile, his half-brother, Orm, a pureblood Atlantean, seeks war with the surface world. On paper, Orm is a generic, irredeemable villain who just wants to see destruction upon the enemy who has polluted the waters and killed its children no matter the cost - but as the film goes on, layers are peeled off his visage, revealing a broken child who has been given great power as the King of Atlantis and wants revenge against the surface world for his mother. The dynamic between Aquaman and Orm somehow is reminiscent of the Thor-Loki dynamic in Thor: Ragnarok, but thankfully the comparison stops there.

In the midst of all this are Vulko, Atlanna and Orm's vizier, who is loyal to Arthur and not afraid to say it, Mera, the daughter of King Nereus, a King of the Xebel tribe who seeks out war for his own reasons, and David Kane, a pirate whose entire character surrounds finding the Aquaman and killing him for what he did to his father. Mera, surprisingly, has the most development as a character alongside Arthur, going from being someone who dislikes the surface world because she doesn't understand it, to being someone who would seek to protect it, because "you shouldn't judge something until you've seen it". It's an interesting use of juxtaposition between the two leads as they learn from each other and grow as people.

James Wan brings his expertise over from the Conjuring films and Fast and Furious 7, adding it to the incredibly simple plot and its unique setting, giving it a flavour all its own, something that DC has only had so far in its standalone films, Man of Steel and Wonder Woman, both of which are a play on the coming-of-age tropes. Here, however, Wan infuses a massive injection of vibrant colours, a multi-layered fictional history and culture to give greater depth, both literally and in terms of story. He and the writers, led by the talented Geoff Johns, turn the plot into a globe-trotting adventure which somehow is a low-key Jules Verne-esque adventure. From the vastness of the Sahara to the simple setting of Sicily and the depths of the ocean, every part of the film has its own colour palette which blends with each other, giving a complete experience.

Wan's handiwork doesn't stop there, however. The film relies heavily on things happening without ceremony, something that it carries throughout its runtime. From the beginning, where Arthur takes on a group of pirates to the climactic battle, everything that can happen without any warning, happens without any warning. It makes for some incredibly tense moments, especially when David Kane enters the fray as the Black Manta, complete with the comic-accurate armour - which somehow has a reasonable explanation for the massive helmet - to the Trench, who would be enough to utterly scare the soul out of any living man if they saw one. It's engaging from beginning to end, with nary a slow moment to break the pace.

Aquaman is easily a strong return of the DC Extended Universe. Wan, given complete control, and Geoff Johns' solid writing elevate this origin story into more than just that, ensuring the experience is wholesome throughout. It's dazzling, it's engaging, it makes you root for the good guys and makes the bad guys more than just stepping stones for the Aquaman. It takes the character, who has been something of a meme sometimes, and makes him someone that can be taken seriously.

Score: 4/5

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Movie review: 'Aquaman'

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