‘Aquaman’ of DC Comics Universe: Our Hero Swims. His Movie Sinks.
Nobody’s going to “Aquaman” for the metaphors. And to be fair, nobody put metaphors in “Aquaman.” Yet when a set of plastic six-pack rings drifts past the camera, you do wonder whether it’s a nod to pollution or a wink at Jason Momoa’s fitness.
Momoa is why some of us are going to “Aquaman.” He’s in one poster with his smoky eyes peeking out of some water. One hand’s gripping a trident. The other’s going “hang ten.” (He’s half native Hawaiian.) But none of that surf humor and none of that hotness are really anywhere in this movie. It’s just two and a half years — sorry, two and a half hours — of oceanic screen savers and hair that won’t stop undulating so we know when we’re underwater.
Aquaman’s been dragged out of DC’s Justice League. His pals include Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and his movie is as mediocre as the latest versions of theirs. Maybe “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Shape of Water” have set the bar too high for marine absurdity, but your local aquarium has a stronger sense of wonder than “Aquaman.”
It does get off to a good, romantic-comedy start, though. Nicole Kidman washes up wounded, more or less, at the Maine lighthouse of Temuera Morrison. He nurses her. She slurps up his goldfish. And Kidman gets closer to Daryl Hannah in “Splash” than you might have thought necessary.
Anyway, here she’s Atlanna, the superpowered queen of Atlantis. He’s Tom Curry, a civilian hunk in flannel. Together, they have a kid named Arthur Curry, whose ability to talk to marine life makes him Aquaman. And, after a quick, home-demolishing battle, Atlanna is dragged back to Atlantis, leaving adult Arthur bitterly certain that the Atlantan power structure has killed her for her sexual amphibiousness.
What ensues isn’t a search for her or a plot for revenge. It’s a film that seems obligated to be a movie about an Arthur — the wrong one! There’s a nice, beery scene that lets Momoa sulk at a bar with Morrison in a way that calls to mind Dudley Moore’s miserable heir who drank himself silly in “Arthur.”
A whole movie of that would have been something. Instead, we get the tired old, other Arthur, a plebe destined for royalty, who, here, is put on a quest to find some long-lost trident that will help prove him King of Atlantis. Because he doesn’t want the job, the movie saddles him with Mera (Amber Heard). She’s some water warrior who doesn’t want to see her home ruled by Arthur’s power-drunk, younger half brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson). So she has to keep shoving Arthur into heroism.
Meanwhile — you knew there’d be a meanwhile — we get to know a sexy pirate (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He wants Aquaman to pay for letting his pirate father (Michael Beach) die on a doomed ship they were trying to rob. This means lots of time with Pirate Jr. cooking up a way to get back into the main plot. His chance comes courtesy of Orm, who communicates with him via holographic splotch.
There is a frisson of delight in seeing a biracial hero dominate a superhero movie and, in Abdul-Mateen, his black foe. But you can’t build a whole blockbuster out of just that. The novelty of Momoa in this part isn’t unexciting. He’s an inspired left-field choice for Aquaman, who in the DC comic books, and the cartoons they inspired, tended to be a slab of Eagle Scout-y blondness.
In another age, Paul Walker would have played him. Now he’s this imposingly big, impenetrably chill, multiracial, biker type, sheathed in tribal tattoos, with a long, dark mane. (Now, only the highlights are blond.) That physique is a draw. You could make a taco with the crease in his back, and his pecs almost whisper for a pillow case. This is to say that Momoa might be the last person you’d pick for somebody named Arthur but the first for a movie in need of a star to plow shirtless from one wet location to another.
But the people responsible for “Aquaman” seem a little embarrassed to lavish Momoa with even a lick of lust. The camera doesn’t manage to take him all the way in until closing time. And after an introduction in which he fights crime in only a pair of dark jeans, he endures a sequence in the desert (please, don’t make me explain) wearing a long-sleeved Henley and linen slacks. (With all due respect to SpongeBob, those are square pants.)
The people who made three “Thor” films never seemed to have this problem. The people who made three “Thor” films also had Chris Hemsworth, an actor eventually allowed to find his hunkiness kind of funny. Momoa, for now, seems stuck. Should he give this part some personality? Should he give an actual performance, as an Adonis or even as an Arthur?
Back in 2011, the movies tried to make a star of him in a recycled version of “Conan the Barbarian,” which seemed to believe that all there is to do with fit actors is have them do the routines of fit forebears. Having them play superheroes instead is only slightly more imaginative. Momoa is a better Aquaman than he was a Conan. And yet grumpy, cocky, mumbly Arthur is still an action-star salad — a little bit Willis, a little bit Stallone and the tiniest chip off the old Rock. And the movie, which James Wan (“Saw,” “The Conjuring,” “Furious 7”) directed from a script credited to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, doesn’t seem interested in giving him a character with either an inner life or much of a personal one. Momoa is merely required to hit plot points — and people.
No wonder he rarely seems excited to be here. There’s nothing to be excited about. “Aquaman” is so much like parts of “Thor” and “Black Panther” and “Avatar” and “The Jewel of the Nile” and so reliant upon an ancient British legend that you don’t know why the people who made this movie bothered. None of Wan’s skills as a builder of suspense sequences come in handy here. He’s minding a circus. When Adbul-Mateen makes his big re-entry, he has to announce his new villain name, but through a giant helmet that makes him look like an electronic music D.J. at the BET Awards. The helmet is so big that when he says, “I am. Black —” I didn’t catch what Black he was. Black Mamba? Black Mumford? Apparently, it’s Black Manta, but I really did have to look that up.
Wilson’s silver hair is slicked back so he looks like his father is either Draco Malfoy or Ivan Drago. As it happens, the man who played Ivan Drago is here, too, as the king Kidman fled. But this is the sort of obvious aquatic movie that might have cast Dolph Lundgren because his name is Dolph. Poor Amber Heard has to perform her scenes in a scarlet wig and emerald green costume and do superpower acting with her mouth agape. She looks like she ate 40 Katy Perry songs and is belching them up. There’s even room for a hobbit-y Willem Dafoe, as Arthur’s guide and trainer. And: What are the physics of Atlantis? How do some things float and others lethally — loudly — hurtle to the sea floor?
There’s no joy or wonder to behold, just comic-book movie blah-blah. All these larded-on extra characters and this extraneous plot leave you with the sense that nobody trusted Momoa to carry more of this thing on his own. Has nobody seen this man’s shoulders! He does get saddled with romantic silliness and lots of “half-breed” put-downs. And, in its way, the movie treats him accordingly, like he’s 50 percent bouncer and 50 percent something that you’d get with a Happy Meal.
Director: James Wan
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall
Stars: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman
Running Time: 2h 23m
Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi