WASHINGTON. Aquaman is a breakthrough blockbuster feature that, like the equally successful Wonder Woman, returns a sometimes B-list veteran DC superhero back into the top tier. It’s something the continuously floundering DC moviemakers desperately needed, and they finally got it. Along with a memorable and (relatively) new action hero Jason Momoa who was fortuitously cast in the title role.
Aquaman back in the Silver Age: Boring superhero?
Aquaman made his initial appearances in DC Comics during the dark days of World War II. Frequently fighting Nazis in those early years, he subsequently morphed into a major figure during DC’s post-war Golden Age. But today’s aging Boomers likely remember Aquaman from his initial Silver Age emergence in issue #260 (1959) of DC’s “Adventure Comics” anthology series. He later became one of the charter members of DC’s “Justice League of America” in the”Brave and the Bold” and subsequent issues under the JLA title.
Although frequently appearing regularly in various DC books through the mid-1980s, Aquaman was a bit controversial among youthful DC superhero fans. Many regarded his costume, consisting of a form-fitting orange top flanked by a pair of long, green, usually finned gloves and matching green tights, as dull and lame. Just like Aquaman himself. Like many DC characters of that time, Aquaman was upright but uptight. He was courageous, yes. But he also came across as bland and conventional, behaving at all times like the prototypical perfect, pre-Vietnam Protest Era American citizen.
Aquaman’s Silver Age alter-ego was Arthur Curry. But that more or less secret identity tended to be treated as an afterthought by numerous DC writer-artist teams. DC fans also regarded his main superhero vulnerability as fairly silly. Vaguely similar to Superman’s allergy to kryptonite, Aquaman needed at least hourly contact with water or he would die. In early “Justice League” tales, whenever Aquaman would confer in conference with other members at the top-secret JLA HQ, a shower head would descend on an hourly basis and douse him as the meeting continued.
A magically morphing superhero
Aquaman underwent several transformations and continuities from the mid-1970s onward. His Atlantean background became more important, and we learned more about his secret origins – primarily the fact that he had an Atlantean mother and a human, earthbound father, making him a denizen of both “worlds.”
Aquaman’s appearance also began to change. While still retaining his weirdly yellow-blonde hair, his hair became longer and wilder. His musculature became more pronounced. And the once polite superhero himself became more of a bad-ass. In addition, from time to time, after one of his hands was severed in a mishap, it was replaced by various mechanical or mystical devices (a bit like Luke Skywalker’s missing hand). These provided him with some additional powers.
That brief synopsis skips a lot of details in Aquaman’s on-again, off-again career in the DC Universe over the years. A persistent problem with his character, however, lay in the fact that his powers seemed too limited to his underwater realm. Worse, many regarded his ability to communicate telepathically with sea creatures as rather silly and hardly worthy of superhero immortality.
Wonder Woman paves the way
Given the several weak efforts under Warner Bros.’ ownership of the DC films, the critics’ long knives were out for the studio’s 2017 release of Wonder Woman. But instead, a true Hollywood miracle occurred. Starring the then-unknown Gal Gadot in the title role, and with an ingenious, fast-paced script uniting Wonder Woman with her Amazonian heritage and training and her original origin story involving action in World War II, the film was a box office phenomenon. Most importantly, it attracted plenty of once-skeptical male audiences in addition to plenty of women and girls, crossing a demographic that has tended to remain fairly static over the years.
After an iffy first outing for the Justice League– which featured Wonder Woman in the cast along with the first appearance of the new Arthur Curry Aquaman – skeptical eyes once again turned toward the Man from Atlantis, as Jason Momoa, who also portrayed the character in Justice League – was set to reprise the role in his own epic film.
Critics appear to have been ready to pan the new film even before its release. Many did so after it was released in late 2018. But the laugh was on them. For once, Warner’s writers, directors and crew pulled together, blending Aquaman’s re-tooled origin story into a rollicking, sea-centered superhero adventure with extensive and generally spectacular underwater scenes dominating throughout.
A box office smash
Unfortunately the early nay-saying critics ended up swimming in a sea of stinging jellyfish. Aquaman proved a smash hit. World-wide, no less.
“Aquaman has now surpassed The Dark Knight Rises in worldwide box office totals to claim the crown of being the biggest-grossing DC movie of all time. According to weekend figures from Deadline, Aquaman has now earned $1.09 billion worldwide – $774.2 million internationally and $315.8m domestically.”
Enter Jason Momoa
Jason Momoa – whom fans of HBO’s hit maxi-series, Game of Thrones, remember as the crude but courageous Khal Drogo, Daenerys Targaryen’s first husband – proved a brilliant choice to play Aquaman and his not-so-secret identity as Arthur Curry. With his powerful build and wild hair and beard, Momoa looks and feels like the real Aquaman fans of earlier DC Comics often wished he would be.
Like Gal Gadot’s foundational characterization of Wonder Woman, Momoa’s presentation of Aquaman not only revived the character of Aquaman. Momoa gave this underwater king an exciting, refreshingly new superhero identity. Momoa IS Aquaman for a new generation. Along with Gadot’s equally compelling Wonder Woman, Momoa’s startling transformation of an also-ran superhero should show Warner exactly what they need to do to revive the rest of their DC characters. Assuming, that is, if they ever hope to catch the Marvel Universe in terms of box office success.
A whirlwind journey from rocky shores to mysterious undersea realms
Aquaman gets off to an appropriately fast start. Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), a middle-aged Amnesty Bay, Massachusetts lighthouse keeper, discovers an attractive but exotically-clad woman (Nicole Kidman) floating unconscious on the rocky coastline just below the lighthouse. He brings her to his lighthouse home in an attempt to revive her. But he’s repaid for her efforts when she awakens, nearly destroying him and his home, brandishing astonishing powers and a magical scepter.
Time passes. We see that love sometimes moves in mysterious ways. This odd couple – we learn her name is Atlanna – now have a son named Arthur. He’s a sensitive little kid who doesn’t know his own potential strength. Typically, he later learns about his telepathic powers by accident.
Unfortunately, Atlanna disappears after a crew of other-worldly attackers invades the lighthouse and, once again, destroy the Curry living quarters. We learn in flashback that another Atlantean character known as Vulko (Willem Dafoe) periodically shows up on shore to teach Arthur some of the arts and traditions of his second, undersea home. These skills will come in handy later.
Another ecological Hollywood pitch. (Sigh)
We eventually discover the wonderful world of Atlantis, which remains very much alive. Unfortunately, as the film unfolds, we learn that this undersea world is about to be taken over by a junta led by the film’s primary villain, Orm, aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson). It turns out that Orm also happens to be Arthur’s half-brother, leading to an uncomfortable rivalry. Orm and some of his allies are getting fed up with the land dwellers for polluting their ocean with loads of discarded plastic containers and other assorted effluvia. Our militant villain busily recruits allies to help him mount a surprise attack on these careless surface dwellers. The idea, presumably, is to teach these polluters a lesson they’ll never forget.
This eco-freak foray is irritating on one level. It proves yet again that Hollywood never misses any opportunity to propagandize political and ecological correctness to patrons who’ve paid to see an entertaining movie not a sermon.
For once, however, the eco-preachers have a valid point. Phenomenal amounts of plastic flotsam continue to overwhelm small Pacific islands when washing ashore. Such mountains of trash also cause considerable death and mayhem among the creatures of the sea. What’s never mentioned in this film or anywhere else is one key, inconvenient truth. Pacific plastic pollution is primarily attributable to the countries of East Asia, not the US, as is implied in Aquaman.
Aquaman and Black Panther have something in common
Similar to Marvel’s also-successful Black Panther, Aquaman concludes with a final, pulse-pounding epic battle between Arthur and his undersea sibling nemesis. They wage battle against the backdrop of a massive Atlantean force hurtling against Arthur’s ragtag followers. But Team Aquaman gets a considerable assist from legions of his finned and tentacle underwater animal friends. Notably, they include armadas of terrifying Great White Sharks.
Sure, it’s mass quantities of CGI here. And movies these days often rely too much on this stuff. But it’s damned good, highly creative CGI here. So you find yourself believing in the whole… well, immersive experience. The only glitch. As Arthur and Mera search the endless dunes of the Sahara for a powerful, hidden weapon, the background dunes are clearly a projection. It’s a weird lapse in the movies otherwise superb CGI world. Maybe these guys are better with the undersea stuff.
The finest in myth making
Director James Wan’s pacing and editing are superb throughout. There are very few slips in narrative continuity. And the story line, though it bobs and weaves a bit, remains completely coherent throughout this film’s long running time. But on the whole, this is one rollicking, entertaining superhero film, made even better by its enthusiastic cast. This is myth making at its finest.
Including those cast members already mentioned, we also mustn’t forget the glam but forceful turn taken by Amber Heard, who portrays Arthur’s reluctant sidekick but eventual love interest Mera. A hat tip as well to Ludi Lin as Captain Murk and a surprise appearance by veteran action guy Dolph Lundren as Mera’s cranky, kingly dad Nereus.
As in the Marvel films, the audience needs to hang around after the credits start to roll. Suddenly, a mid-credits tease appears, promoting a promised Aquaman sequel. That next chapter promises to feature the nefarious Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), another longtime Aquaman comics villain we also glimpsed in this film’s prominent sub-plot. The fateful twist unfolds when Arthur-Aquaman inadvertently turns Black Manta into his implacable enemy in the current film.
Can I still see the film?
While Aquaman has moved out of several first-tier DC-Maryland-Virginia (DMC) movie theaters, it’s still playing in many others. Once source seems to have one idea for the movie’s staying power here and elsewhere.
“Aquaman was a hit with audiences and has had many of them return to theaters to view the film again with some fans having shared that they’ve viewed it more than twice. The new report also suggests that Aquaman could surpass Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice domestically by President’s Day. At the worldwide box office, Aquaman is already the highest-grossing DC Comics movie of all time.”
Rating: *** 1/2 (Three and one-half out of four stars) Highly recommended. Family friendly (with just momentary PG-13 moments) and rollicking good fun. Warner-DC: Learn from this one.
— Headline image: Jason Momoa as Aquaman. (Warner Bros. PR photo)