Movie review: Jason Momoa makes a splash in overelaborate, CGI-soaked 'Aquaman'

  • Arthur (Jason Momoa) fights to save Atlantis and prevent war in "Aquaman."

    Arthur (Jason Momoa) fights to save Atlantis and prevent war in "Aquaman." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

 
By Jake Coyle
Associated Press

"Aquaman" - ★ ★

Superheroes who travel by sea horse never get any respect.

Since Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger first dreamed him up in 1941, Aquaman's fate has largely been as the Rodney Dangerfield of DC Comics -- a regular punchline for his not-so-potent powers. Sure, he can talk underwater and brandishes a big fork for a weapon. But like Luca Brasi, he sleeps with the fishes.

Yet Aquaman's day has arrived. And if there was one inspired stroke behind the first solo movie for the Atlantis hero, it was in casting Jason Momoa in the Justice League role, one he begun in 2016's "Batman v Superman." It's almost a dare: Try telling this guy your Aquaman jokes.

In James Wan's fitfully entertaining "Aquaman," a heavy metal guitar riff blares at our first close-up of the long-haired, much-tattooed, shirtless Momoa. "Permission to come aboard?" he says with a sly, over-the-shoulder grin.

It's a welcome arrival, and Momoa's charisma is as formidable as his brawn. So why is "Aquaman" so soggy with Atlantis mythology and drowning in special effects when all it really needs to do is let Momoa's Aquaman rock?

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Vulko (Willem Dafoe) trains the title superhero and serves as royal counselor to his brother in "Aquaman."
Vulko (Willem Dafoe) trains the title superhero and serves as royal counselor to his brother in "Aquaman." - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

There are pleasures in Wan's extravagant underwater pageant. It's surely the only movie around where you can enjoy a floating Willem Dafoe (as Vulko, royal counselor to Atlantis ruler Orm, played by Patrick Wilson), see a gladiatorial showdown sounded by an octopus on drums and, in one of the many scenes where water is weaponized, witness death by Chianti in a Sicilian wine store.

A war is brewing underwater, but David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall's script takes a while to get us there. They have origin stories to map out, beginning with Atlanna, the banished Atlantis princess (Nicole Kidman), washing up on the rocky Maine shores of a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison). They fall in love and have a child named Arthur (Aquaman to be) before she is forced to return to the sea.

Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) must return to the sea in "Aquaman."
Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) must return to the sea in "Aquaman." - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As an adult, Arthur -- trained by Vulko as a kid -- moonlights as a hero in between happy-hour trips to the bar. But he's reluctantly drawn into a struggle for the throne of the seven seas with his younger brother Orm, who's plotting a battle with "surface dwellers." Orm regards Arthur as a "half-breed" not fit for the underwater kingdom he grew up outside of. The red-haired Xebel princess Mera (Amber Heard), a formidable fighter, joins with Arthur on a globe-trotting mission to save Atlantis and prevent war by finding a sacred trident, with occasional gestures of romantic banter along the way.

After centuries of invisibility and peace, Orm and his conspirators have had enough of the landlubbers above. In one tidal wave of vengeance, he washes the ocean's garbage and warships onto beaches around the world.

Arthur (Jason Momoa), left, teams up with Mera (Amber Heard) in "Aquaman."
Arthur (Jason Momoa), left, teams up with Mera (Amber Heard) in "Aquaman." - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

"Aquaman" is too timid to take this thread seriously. Instead we have a tiresome tale of royal power struggle that could almost as easily happen on Krypton or in ancient Greece.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Wan, the director of the "Saw" franchise and "Furious 7," deserves both criticism for soaking the film so thoroughly in kitschy CGI and praise for the glowing synthetic beauty of Atlantis. Both Wan and Momoa have a surprisingly firm grasp of who Aquaman is, and they ultimately steer their film toward sincerity. It's surely some measure of accomplishment that "Aquaman," for all its messy grandiosity, culminates in its hero therapeutically saying "Let's talk," and it's uttered not to a manatee but to a brother.

• • •

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Kidman

Directed by: James Wan

Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for violence and language. 143 minutes

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