by Matt Weiner
A movie that brings together Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Julie Andrews and Dolph Lundgren is inevitably going to have a lot going on. That’s certainly the case for James Wan’s Aquaman, a weird mix of origin story, Arthurian myth and anti-racist appeal to coexistence. If that sounds like a lot for the frat bro character from 2017’s Justice League, well… it is. But thankfully it’s also never boring.
The new movie takes place after the events of Justice League, allowing half-man/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) to resume his day job of serving as a one-man Coast Guard and drinking. Flashbacks piece together Curry’s life story: his father (Temuera Morrison) fell in love with the queen (Kidman) of the underwater kingdom Atlantis, who later had to choose between endangering her taboo love child or returning to the kingdom.
A series of tragedies pushes Curry on his hero’s journey, with enough family strife between him and his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to fill a Greek play. Together with the Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard), Curry strikes out in search of a golden MacGuffin along with his destiny, even finding time to pick up an archenemy for good measure (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta).
How much of a comfort it is that Aquaman is one of the better recent superhero movies depends on where you fall on the debate over whether distinctive directors should get picked for more of these big comic book projects (and given a long leash)—or if you wish we lived in a universe where they could pursue these visions without yoking themselves to Disney/Marvel or DC.
It is to the film’s benefit that Wan, veteran of horror franchises Saw, The Conjuring and Insidious, manages to tie Curry’s predictable Arthurian ascent to the most disturbing Lovecraftian horror this side of Hellboy. And it’s almost shocking to see the cotton candy brightness of Atlantis after the pummeling color palettes of Batman v. Superman and Justice League.
With his nonstop pace, steady stream of exotic settings and action that never gets bogged down in its own seriousness, Wan’s entry in the genre hits the mark as his loving homage to vintage Spielberg and Lucas—plus tentacles. Best of all, it’s a refreshing reminder that you shouldn’t need a flowchart and multi-phase corporate synergy to make a good popcorn movie.
Which is good because it doesn’t look like these franchises are going anywhere anytime soon, so if any other directors are looking to wed their creative vision to the corporate motherships then maybe I can learn to be more tolerant of the products they give birth to. It’s a message that sounds oddly familiar.