A screenplay is a weird, ever-changing thing, but in its earliest stages is often filled with the writer’s wildest, most fantastical ideas dreamt up with no thoughts given to budget restrictions, scenes that usually get struck from the finished product for being too complex, too ambitious, too time-consuming, or simply too expensive. I mention this only because I just experienced Aquaman, quite possibly the first major release film I’ve ever seen that felt like not a single idea from the conception phase was vetoed for being too insane or over-the-top. Yes, an octopus will play the drums. Yes, Julie Andrews will voice a Lovecraftian sea beast who lives at the Earth’s core. Yes, there will be crab people, yes, there will be gargantuan shrimp used as war machines, yes, we will ask audiences to believe that Patrick Wilson is Jason Momoa‘s younger brother. Yes, to every single idea that might entertain the audience over Aquaman‘s genuinely batshit two-hour-plus runtime.
Plot-wise, the result is a hot, foamy mess, my friends, but a mess that washed over me like a tidal wave, a mess so wild and candy-colored and eager to have a bitchin’ time that it’s some of the most fun I’ve had at a theater this year, anchored by a Momoa who is having the time of his goddamn life and director James Wan‘s genuinely gorgeous vision of an entire universe under the ocean waves. It’s a bit of an annoying critics’ trope to tell you to see a movie on the biggest screen possible, but Aquaman is truly one of this year’s only films—along with ROMA and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, not bad company—where it’s practically required you seek out the widest, loudest screen you can. I would project this thing on to the side of an actual ocean liner if I could. And then the ocean liner would somehow get tossed into a hurricane made of humpback whales, because that’s the type of movie Aquaman is.
To put it much more succinctly, do I recommend the experience? Yeah-Uh!
Picking up a year after nine-foot-tall kitchen utensil Steppenwolf tried to invade Earth in Justice League, Aquaman sees Arthur Curry—born of an Atlantean queen (Nicole Kidman) and a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison)—being called back to his native Atlantis by Mera (Amber Heard) and Vulko (Willem Dafoe), where Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Wilson) is planning war with the surface world. Because Atlantis still settles succession disputes with fights to the death but are sticklers for bureaucracy, Orm can’t legally attack the land-dwellers without the support of all five underwater kingdoms. Before Orm can wrangle together the army he needs, Arthur is tasked with tracking down the legendary trident of King Atlan (Graham McTavish), which would give him mastery over the seven seas and prove him the rightful king of Atlantis once and for all. On his trail is David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the Black Manta, a pirate rocking explosive Atlantean weaponry and a personal beef with Arthur Curry.
The refreshing thing about Aquaman is, for all its technical wizardry, the plot is surprisingly old-school, owing a lot to the adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s that later birthed the Indiana Jones movies. It’s a MacGuffin-seeking treasure hunt, with Arthur and Mera globe-hopping to collect clues; one scene in a desert crypt almost feels like the rare bright spots of the early Tomb Raider movies. This plays nicely to Momoa’s strengths. The former Khal Drogo isn’t going to win any dramatic Oscars anytime soon, but as a wise-cracking, henchman-punching adventurer with a charismatic grin, he’s a young Harrison Ford plus five inches. Momoa leans so hard into the cheesiness of this film it would’ve killed him if he was lactose intolerant. And make no mistake, Aquaman is a cheesy film, but the cast—especially its leading man—are well aware, and have a way of making it work.
But the real star of Aquaman is the world that Wan, effects supervisors Charles Gibson (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Kelvin McIlwain (Furious 7), and a veritable army of FX technicians have created. Every frame of the film’s underwater kingdoms is bursting with life the same way a gorgeous splash page—no pun intended—in a comic book would. I’d legitimately love to pause Aquaman occasionally just to take in the pet sharks, merpeople, kelp cottages, and whatever else is floating on by in the background. It’s not just the magnitude of it all, either, it’s the small details Wan and Co. pack into these crowded underwater scenes, down to the way character’s hair floats around them as they talk. The film’s first glimpse of Atlantis in all its neon-lit glory is legitimately breathtaking.
Unfortunately, Aquaman‘s ambition is also eventually its undoing, story-wise. The script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2) and Will Beall (Gangster Squad) tries to juggle both Arthur and Mera’s search for the trident with Orm’s devious plans to build an army—plus all that exposition explaining the nitty-gritty history of Atlantis—which results in a back-half so packed it becomes confusing. The film’s massive climactic set piece is visually stunning, but it’s hard to tell exactly who is killing who and why, and it’s unclear if the characters themselves know, either. It’s these kinds logic-loops and jarring left turns that muddles Aquaman‘s quality. There are some clever flashbacks to Arthur’s training as a kid, but a combination of questionable child acting and rushed exposition keep them from landing hard enough to have any real impact on Arthur as an adult. Also—and this is an incredibly specific quibble, but trust me, it’s accurate—the script relies far too heavily on scenes transitioning on a surprise explosion. It got to the point where I just assumed every single conversation would be interrupted by someone suddenly blasting through the wall.
When the action is on a more grounded, human scale, however, Wan whips up some truly wicked pieces of ass-kicking. The director’s time as a modern day horror maestro on The Conjuring films seems to have taught him that what’s happening in the background should draw the eye just as much as the foreground. The same is true of his action, which often sees cinematographer Don Burgess‘ camera free-floating between multiple combatants. The highlight of the entire film is a confrontation between Arthur, Mera, and Manta in Sicily, a laser-blasting brawl that flows seamlessly across rooftops, through living rooms, and right into a toilet. (It makes sense in context.) Insidious fans, rejoice; there’s also a scene set in the horrific homeworld of The Trench—evil, monstrous Atlanteans created by Geoff Johns, a producer on the film—that allows Wan to flex his trademark jump-scare muscles.
Overall, I stand by the fact that Aquaman is capital-letter Messy, but it’s also a few strokes in a positive direction for Warner Bros.’ DCEU. Unlike the overly dour Batman vs. Superman and tonally haphazard Justice League, Aquaman left me wanting more; more of these characters, more of this world, more of Wan helming a superhero flick. While Wonder Woman is probably still the best movie to come from the DCEU, Aquaman feels unabashedly like a comic book event, rainbow-colored and out of its mind.
And no, before you ask, Aquaman doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie, either. I’d wager it goes to far weirder places than any MCU movie—besides maybe Thor: Ragnarok—would go. Under the Marvel umbrella, you can probably expect a satisfying origin story or outer space romp. But under DC, it turns out it’s better down where it’s wetter. Take it from me.