It’s been more than a year since Warner Bros. and DC assaulted cinema audiences with Justice League, and the companies are now at it again. Aquaman is DC’s latest, a solo spin-off for Jason Mamoa’s Atlantean hero from Justice League, now roped into stopping a war between his people and the ‘surface dwellers’.
The film is out in UK cinemas from 12 December, though the US has to wait an extra week or so until 21 December for its chance to watch. UK readers can pre-order tickets now from Cineworld, Vue, or Odeon, while in the US it’s easier to check out Fandango or Atom Tickets. Check out our guide to the film’s post-credit scenes to find out if it’s worth sticking around at the end or not too.
DC’s track record of late has been patchy at best, and of five films so far only one – Wonder Woman – really has a solid claim to being genuinely good. It’s easy to imagine then that a lot rides on the success of Aquaman, which sits in the unenviable position of trying to please both critics and fans while resetting the DCEU’s tone and direction without getting in the way of the universe’s history, or the company’s upcoming slate, including Wonder Woman 1984.
At the very least you could never accuse director James Wan (The Conjuring, Fast & Furious 7) of shying away from the challenge: Aquaman is arguably the biggest, boldest, and downright maddest comic book movie to come from either Marvel or DC yet – for all the good and bad that brings.
At times the film feels like little more than set pieces strung together with ‘wacky’ moments that seem desperate to get people talking about the film: fleeting glimpses of a bongo-playing octopus, weaponised wine, or something I can only describe as a lava crab trebuchet, just to name a few.
Jason Momoa is Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry – the mixed-race son of a human fisherman (Temuera Morrison) and an Atlantean queen (Nicole Kidman, whose outfits alone might be the most unexpected element of any blockbuster this year). He’s content with getting drunk and fighting the occasional pirate when he gets roped into challenging his half-brother Orm (a peroxided Patrick Wilson) for the Atlantean throne in order to prevent a war with the surface.
It’s the sort of wafer-thin plot setup that you’d hope would make space for character development or layered meaning, but here mostly serves as the framework for a string of excursions around various underwater kingdoms (and briefly the Sahara) as Aquaman tries to retrieve a legendary trident and Orm works to build his aquatic army. Oh, and remember those pirates? One of them pops up every now and then as Black Manta, contributing the film’s best fight and worst subplot.
Marvel has often said that its approach to managing its myriad movies is to try and give each one a genre of its own, beyond just ‘superhero’. Wan has clearly taken that approach to heart, but unfortunately the genre he picked is epic ’80s fantasy, which even the most ardent Conan fan must admit hasn’t yielded many greats.
From the incomprehensible royal politics to naff armoured henchmen and towering CGI monsters, at times Aquaman feels more like a sequel to Momoa’s Conan the Barbarian remake than anything else, though there is at least more visual flair than that film ever managed. It all culminates in an epic battle that’s clearly eager to draw comparisons to The Lord of the Rings, but feels more like something Wan dreamed up after going too hard at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.
A cast of heavyweights – Kidman, Wilson, even bloody Willem Dafoe – can’t salvage dialogue that gives stilted a bad name. At least Momoa seems to be having a fun time, and has mostly dropped the tired frat boy from Justice League. Meanwhile Amber Heard and Dolph Lundgren are almost suffocated under a pair of improbably red wigs, though amazingly Lundgren looks like the most comfortable person here – clearly playing He-Man all those years ago set him up well.
Special mention must also go to the soundtrack. Composer Rupert Gregson-Williams was clearly as confused as the rest of us about whether he was scoring a fantasy epic, a sci-fi spectacle, or something else entirely, so just threw a grab-bag of music at the screen and hoped it might fit. Meanwhile I can only assume the team set out to pick the absolute worst contemporary songs they could for any given moment in the film, reaching its zenith with the inclusion of an actual, honest to God, Pitbull song called ‘Ocean to Ocean’ which I think someone actually paid him to write for the film.
Aquaman isn’t all bad, and you could never accuse it of playing it safe. But Wan’s bloated, over-long film is nowhere near as fun as its maddest moments might suggest, and the connective tissue is dreary, dull, and unrelentingly naff.
Let’s put it this way: this is a movie in which the actual Julie Andrews voices a mammoth sea creature while Dolph Lundgren rides a giant sea horse into battle against an army of crabmen led by John Rhys-Davies, and somehow it managed to make those moments dull as ditchwater.
If you’re going to see Aquaman, do it on the biggest screen you can find, and wallow in the sheer mad, maximalist excess of it all. Otherwise, we’d give it a wide berth.