He’s the laughing stock of the DC Comics Extended Universe — and Aquaman’s solo movie almost gets by on razzle dazzle, since that’s all it has up its waterlogged sleeve. Not that this underwater superhero knows much from sleeves: A shirtless but never humorless Jason Momoa plays Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman, as if he were born to wield a trident. Yes, he looks nothing like the platinum blondie of the comic books. His half brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson, in for the fun of it), is the one taking on that visage, complete with a dash of Draco Malfoy villainy. “I am the Ocean Master,” says Orm, seriously and hilariously. Ok, then.
But, wait, no jumping ahead. Aquaman is directed by James Wan, the horrormeister behind Saw and The Conjuring who’s showing off his lighter side. He gives the 143-minute film a propulsive drive, which comes in handy when the light dawns that the plot is going nowhere. The movie is an origin story from co-writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, that starts out with a man having sex with a fish. That’s right. A human lighthouse keeper, Thomas (Temuera Morrison), working out of Amnesty Bay, Massachusetts, falls hard for Atlanna, the queen of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, when she washes up on shore. Nicole Kidman, of all overqualified actresses, plays her. And before long the interspecies couple is raising a son, Arthur, until Mom has to go back to sea on family business. As for the kid, he’s left to wonder whether he belongs to the surf or the turf.
Yeah, it sounds idiotic — and often it is. The tin-earred dialogue doesn’t help. But Momoa, who swam in and out of extended cameos in the DCEU’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, proves he’s got the muscle and the magnetism to take on a whole franchise. Can Arthur find his place under the sea where titans do battle and saddle up on great white sharks? (That image alone will make you smile.) He has water-logged help in his mother’s best friend, royal counsel Vulko (Willem Dafoe, of all overqualified actors), who teaches Arthur how to literally swim with the fishes. There’s trouble down under. King Orm wants to declare war on the surface — where his landlubber half-bro lives — for polluting the seven seas. He’s got a point.
The downside is that the movie takes forever to get there, dawdling over a cooked-up love story between Arthur and a high-spirited hottie named Mera (Amber Heard), an ocean princess whose daddy, King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren — he’s back!), wants to set her up with King Orm. The soaked regent is willing; she, however, is not. Instead, Mera and Arthur, flirting to the limits of PG-13 propriety, take off a tour of the seven undersea kingdoms. There’s also a stop in the Sahara to find the golden trident that will prove Arthur is the real king if, true to Arthurian legend, he can pull the sword from the stone. Or something like that.
Got it? Yeah, we didn’t think so. The travelogue stuff, coral-colored pretty as it is, can only take you so far before boredom sets it. Thankfully, Wan sets things right just in time. Finally, a massive battles rages. Sea creatures raise watery hell. Warriors clash. And Arthur and Orm fight to prove which one mommy loved best and forge a peace that might last until the inevitable sequel. Aquaman is a mess of clashing tones and shameless silliness, but a relief after all the franchise’s recent superhero gloom. Any budget-busting epic that finds time to show us an octopus playing bongos gets a pass in our book.