Sometimes a blockbuster will reach such thrilling heights of bad-movie lunacy that it becomes a masterpiece of its own—a monument to cheese, endlessly rewatchable for the sheer delight of, say, watching John Travolta try to out-act Nicolas Cage in a horny murderous priest getup. Aquaman, the DC film about a hunky half-fish guy who’s supposed to rule a kingdom in which people ride giant seahorses and major administrative decisions depend on who holds a magic fork, should have been one of those movies. In its best moments, it comes close. But whenever Aquaman begins to finally find its sea legs, buoyed by the sublime ridiculousness baked into its premise, it’s soon weighed down again by the most tedious inclinations of superhero movies today.
Let me tell you something about Aquaman: There is a magically baffling moment in this movie where the would-be King of the Seven Seas sniffs his own armpit underwater, flinches and goes “ew!” at the smell. In another scene, he chomps an entire rose in one bite as a weirdly sweet gesture of affection for Mera (Amber Heard), who just ate one as well. The most repeated line in the movie is, “This is awesome!” and it comes from Aquaman (Jason Momoa) every single time. People ride armored seahorses and sharks and prehistoric alligators, and command battle-crustaceans and warships shaped like manta rays. Princesses wear ball gowns made of jellyfish to attend life-or-death duels, where crowds roar to the beat of a fired-up octopus on the drums. It is bananas. Glorious, even, in moments like this.
Aquaman’s never more fun than when it basks in all its luminescent madness and revels in being “in” on the joke of a $200 million fantasy blockbuster based on a figure who had become a pop culture punchline. Its imagination runs joyfully wild, constructing a world of dazzling underwater color and invention. It’s cheesy and weird, and sometimes funny in that jaw-dropping, is-this-seriously-happening-right-now way. But the high of Aquaman’s battiest moments is always too short-lived.
Invariably, here will come a villain with too much to say and too little to do, grinding the mania to a halt. Or it’ll be another marathon exposition dump about inter-ocean politicking, inscrutable conflicts on par with the excitement of the Star Wars prequels’ crises over the taxation of trade routes. Inevitably, the tenth tedious CGI battle in which buildings get smashed and everyone’s eyes glaze over will come lumbering through, too. Relative to the rest of the DC cinematic universe (Wonder Woman aside), Aquaman isn’t the worst. But after sinking two and a half hours into this thing, I’d have liked to emerge with more than relief that it wasn’t actively depressing, like Batman v Superman.
Directed by James Wan and scripted by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, the Arthur Curry origin story begins with a meet-cute between the future king’s parents: his mother, the Atlantean princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and his father, a lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison). For 10 short, sweet minutes, it’s Splash with Kidman as the mermaid, staring wide-eyed in wonder at everyday human objects. But after the two fall in love and Atlanna gives birth to the couple’s son, Atlantean soldiers force her to return underwater, threatening to kill her new family if she resists. She never returns for her son, and Arthur instead learns to use his Atlantean abilities from Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the vizier to the Atlantean royals and the architect of a plan to install Arthur in his rightful place as the firstborn heir to the throne.
Not that Arthur wants anything more to do than fish and drink beer when we meet him as an adult, now played with goofball charm by Jason Momoa. Though the events of Justice League are past him and Arthur has helped save the world, he’s far from a noble hero. He helps defend Navy ships from pirates but stops short at forgiving a man who killed innocents, instead leaving him to die in front of his son. That angry son becomes the revenge-driven baddie Black Manta (Yahya Adbul-Mateen II), who looks a little too much like a Power Rangers sidekick in live-action and about whom the movie seems to forget entirely partway through.
With unrest brewing under the sea, meanwhile, Princess Mera (daughter to an underwater king played by Dolph Lundgren which, importantly, means we get to see Dolph Lundgren on a seahorse) emerges to plead with Arthur to return with her to Atlantis and finally meet and unseat his half-brother, the reigning King Orm (Patrick Wilson), a megalomaniac who wants to unite all seven underwater kingdoms and use their combined power to obliterate the surface world.
Orm’s vendetta is reasonable, really—he wants humans to stop dumping their garbage all over his ’hood. But he’s also an egotistical, power-hungry narcissist with mommy issues who starts murdering royals rather than letting them refuse to go along with his plan for world domination. Standard villain stuff. What really stands out about Orm is his obsession with becoming “Ocean Master,” a goofy title Patrick Wilson repeatedly booms in the face of his enemies with a delightfully calibrated dose of camp. Little else about his character works—his hatred for his “half-breed” would-be usurper brother feels strangely bloodless—but in fits of entitled petulance, Wilson hits the right notes.
Betrothed to Orm, Mera understandably starts looking for an out. She tells Arthur that his unique half-human, half-Atlantean blood makes him the “bridge between land and sea,” the chosen one who must find an ancient trident that’ll give him the power to fulfill his fate, defeat Orm, unite the Seven Kingdoms, blah, blah—even Arthur can’t follow the fifth round of belabored prophecy-speak in an hour. When asked what he heard, Arthur is a voice for us all: “Something, something, trident?”
There are so many unnecessary CGI blowups cluttering the movie that Mera’s chemistry with Arthur doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to ignite the love affair Aquaman wants us to believe in. (Their first kiss is just this side shy of Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter-level anti-chemistry.) Still, in the minutes they share in a gorgeously-photographed Sahara desert and Sicilian village on their quest for the trident, Heard and Momoa sow the beginnings of a sweet screwball romance. But Mera is saddled with too many lines that reduce her to reassuring Arthur again and again of his destiny, of how special he is, of how he can do what no one else can. Never mind her intimate knowledge of Atlantean politics and her awe-inspiring aquakinesis—the superpower through which she bends water to her will, forming deadly spears out of red wine and draining fluids from a person’s body. Only Arthur can save her world. The magic fork says so.
As Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa shines when the movie matches his hammy, seductive silliness. His Arthur responds to the wackiness around him like someone flabbergasted that he’s in a movie, winsome except for when he’s burdened with unclever one-liners. It happens despairingly often. The movie’s cornball dialogue—not enough of the fun kind, to be clear, just first-draft placeholder jokes that no one really laughs at—isn’t the worst thing about it. But it does seem to have confounded performers who went for sincerity over the winking theatricality that maybe, maybe might have helped float this movie with outrageousness and delight.
Instead, Aquaman’s plot and dialogue devolve to duller depths even as its final 30 minutes deliver a gloriously wild, extravagant ocean spectacle that seems to top itself with every cut until an actual kraken appears. It’s not a spoiler, I should hope, to say that at some point Aquaman takes command of the ocean’s creatures. But the sight itself, the context it’s unleashed in, and the scenes that precede it are so wonderfully insane, the sheer rush of it almost redeems the two-hour slog it took to get there. Almost. If only Aquaman were better at being worse.