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 weapon. But like Luca Brasi, he sleeps with the fishes.
Yet Aquaman’s day has finally 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 waterlogged, 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. As Momoa showed on his recent “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig, his 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?
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 tussle that tumbles into a Sicilian wine store.
“Aquaman” weighs in somewhere between the lugubrious “Justice League” and the less leaden “Wonder Woman” on the uneven scales of recent DC films. To both the movie’s benefit and detriment, the seas here are choppier than in the predictably (and sometimes boringly) smooth sailing of a Marvel movie. But the bright spots (Momoa, that octopus) can be difficult to really relish amid the oceans of exposition and a typically pulverizing, overelaborate screenplay.
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, a screen goddess without the need to play an aquatic one), washing up on the rocky Maine shores of a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison). They fall in love and have a child named Arthur (our Aquaman to be) before Atlanna is forced to return to the sea.
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.” He 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), herself a formidable fighter, joins with Arthur on a globe-trotting mission to save Atlantis and prevent war by finding a sacred trident (oh, there is so very much trident action), with occasional, half-hearted gestures of romantic banter along the way.
After centuries of invisibility and peace, Orm and his conspirators have had enough of the landlubbers above. (Why they weren’t earlier pushed over the edge by jet skis or, for that matter, “Baywatch,” is unclear.) In one tidal wave of vengeance, he washes the ocean’s garbage and warships onto beaches around the world.
But “Aquaman” is too timid to take this thread seriously (or even to substantially include sea animals for Aquaman to, you know, talk to). Instead we have a tiresome tale of royal power struggle that could almost as easily happen on Krypton or in ancient Greece, albeit without the benefit of a floating Dafoe.
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. The movie zips along too quickly before we get much more than a float-over view of Atlantis. (Many mysteries, such as how plumbing functions on the seafloor, go unanswered.) But in almost “Tron”-like contours of luminous neon, Atlantis is a cinema world well built, at least on the outside. But the movie’s only truly visually stunning sequence is a deep-sea chase lit by a lone flare while hordes of frightful creatures close in.
But both Wan and Momoa have a surprisingly firm grasp of who Aquaman is, and they ultimately – more than two hours later – steer their film toward sincerity and away from bombast. 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.
“Aquaman,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. Running time: 143 minutes. Two stars out of four.