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Aquaman (2018)

Director: James Wan

Screenplay: David Leslie Jounson-McGoldrick, Will Beall

Starring:

Jason Momoa: Arthur Curry/Aquaman

Amber Heard: Princess Mera

Temuera Morrison: Tom Curry

Patrick Wilson: King Orm

Willem Dafoe: Vulko

Nicole Kidman: Atlanna

Dolph Lundgren: King Nereus

Yahya Abdyl-Mateen II: Manta

Aquaman is an origins movie wherein we are introduced to Arthur Curry’s human father Tom, played by Temuera Morrison, and his Atlantean mother, Queen Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman.  Atlanna, injured, is washed up on the rocky shore near a lighthouse tended by Tom Curry.  In short order, they fall in love, and Arthur is the result.  Because of his royal blood, he has all the abilities and powers of Atlanteans, but lots more because he’s–well, he’s Aquaman.

The movie doesn’t explain the tattoos, which reportedly took two hours and more to paint on pretty much every day of filming, and no one else in Atlantis seems to have anything like them, but it’s a movie based on a comic book, so…

Atlanna must return to Atlantis to protect Arthur and Tom from the Atlanteans who frown on Atlanteans fraternizing with land-based folks, who they don’t like because they pollute the sea–the obligatory Hollywood nod to progressive causes–and are generally icky. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t completely overdo this bit of wokeness, focusing instead on the story of Arthur Curry.

In the meantime, Vulko, played by Willem Dafoe who seems to look more cadaverous with every film appearance, teaches young Arthur the ways of he who must someday become king of Atlantis.

The movie more or less opens with a Russian Akula–attack submarine–being boarded by pirates, who kill much of the crew, flinging automatic fire wildly about the bridge, which is not a good idea in a small, steel enclosed space filled with delicate electronics, but hey, it’s a movie based on a comic book, so…

Arthur comes to the rescue, forces the sub to the surface by pushing it up himself.  He wipes out all the bad guys, except one–Manta, played by Yahya Abdyl-Mateen II (his actual name is probably Bob Smith).  He swears revenge on Arthur, and spends the rest of his time onscreen scowling and seething with rage.

The movie takes enormous liberties with reality, as well as the laws of physics, which pretty well define reality, but again, it’s a movie based on a comic book, so…

The rest is pretty predictable.  Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm, played by Patrick Wilson, wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms to conquer the land, because that makes for a good script conflict.  Mera, played by Amber Heard, works to convince Arthur that he must come to Atlantis to take his rightful place as King to unite the kingdoms of the sea and land, for which he needs to find the mythical, original trident of the King of Atlantis.

DC productions have had a hard slog catching up to the level of excellence of Marvel productions.  Justice League, which was widely panned, but which I found, despite its many faults, to be an entertaining movie, was the first real step toward reaching the Marvel level.  It was that movie that introduced Jason Momoa as Aquaman:

Jason Momoa plays a type of character he has all but perfected: the big, brutish, perpetually angry, shirtless loner (yes, he gets to do some pec flexing too). However, this time he manages, one supposes with the influence of Whedon, not to take himself too seriously, and even shows a bit of humor, particularly in one scene when he inadvertently sits on Wonder Woman’s lasso, and engages in a bit of unrestrained truth telling, to the delight of Godot and the audience.

He begins Aquaman pretty much where he left off in Justice League: as a big, brutish, perpetually angry, shirtless loner.  He’s not sure who he is, is angry at his mother for leaving him and his father, is sort of/kind of the protector of the seas, but is sort of/kind of certain he doesn’t want anything to do with Atlantis.

The script demands all manner of action/pursuit/fight sequences, all of which are very well done.  Arthur finally realizes his destiny won’t let him alone, and, after a great deal of sanitized, underwater cinematic bloodshed, wins the day and is acclaimed King Arthur of Atlantis.

In case, gentle readers, you were wondering why Aquaman has an outdated name like Arthur, you just figured it out.  Like the British King Arthur, Arthur Curry must undergo a trial to retrieve a sacred weapon which is the symbol that will unite his people.  And like the historic Arthur, Arthur Curry brings peace and goodness.

An enormous amount of this movie was produced in the computer, and the effects are excellent.  It is, visually speaking, a beautiful and imaginative movie.  The Atlanteans are far advanced on land dwellers, and live in harmony with the creatures of the sea.  Director James Wan brought to life a complete underwater world of transcendent beauty. Atlanteans move with a kind of fluid grace one might expect to see.

In the Thor movies, particularly the first directed by Kenneth Branaugh, the camera does an introductory helicopter-like flyover of Asgard, which we find a story-book-like paradise.  Arthur’s first introduction to Atlantis is done virtually identically, though he’s riding in a craft flown(?) by Mera.  It’s just one example of the excellence of the CGI work in this movie, and a lesson wisely learned from Marvel.Aquaman follows Justice League relatively well, but with several significant and necessary departures.  In Justice League Mera had brown hair, but in Aquaman, her hair is the kind of pinkish-red one often sees in teenaged girls who have gone too far with hair dye.  Even so, she carries herself very well, and is at once a very attractive woman and a believable super-human warrior.

Another significant departure is the Atlanteans are able to speak underwater, with a slight “bubbling(?)” of their words to simulate what such speech might sound like underwater in the DC universe–another physics violation.  In Justice League, Mera had to create an underwater air bubble before Arthur and she could chat.  That would obviously have been far too clumsy in a movie “filmed” mostly underwater.

Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Aquaman is now definitive. He not only eventually accepts his destiny, he somehow acquires the gold and green outfit comic readers will recognize.

Nicole Kidman’s role, while short on screen time, is long on nobility and honest emotion, which brings tears to the eyes of Tom and Arthur Curry, and to me as well.  Real men do cry when appropriate. Kidman looks like a 20 year old–she’s a strikingly beautiful woman–and while a lesser actress could not have done the emotional role and dialogue without becoming maudlin, she makes it believable.  She convinces Arthur what is needed is less a king than a hero.  In the best epic style, Arthur knows how to do that. Being a king naturally follows, which is more or less the culmination of Arthur’s character development.  He is really the only dynamic character in the movie. The rest are pretty much static, which, considering the movie is about him, should be expected.

Even with all of his powers, what makes Arthur a king is the love of two good women: Mera and Atlanna.  Of course, thousands on land, and particularly in the sea, have to die before love and forgiveness can prevail–funny how that seems to be the way of things in any universe, isn’t it?–but Arthur demonstrates he’ll be a benevolent ruler who can and will fight when necessary.

One other departure from Justice League: in that movie: Arthur told Bruce Wayne he doesn’t talk to fish, but to the water.  In Aquaman, he does indeed talk to fish, and other aquatic creatures, and from a very young age.  Like being able to speak underwater, that was obviously a necessity of a coherent underwater universe that will make it possible to put sequels together.

Dolph Lundgren plays the king of an allied underwater kingdom, and despite having scant screen time, handles the role well. Patrick Wilson plays a solid antagonist to Arthur, at once vicious and ruthless, but at the end, perhaps redeemable.

Arthur eventually bests, and appears to have killed Manta, but in the best comic book traditions, his death is not a sure thing, so he may return, seething with revenge and menace in general, to annoy Arthur in the future.

Arthur does get the girl in the end, though it is actually Mera who is more active in pursuing the relationship, and their long-delayed big kiss had the women in the audience of the theater where I saw the movie “awww” and “Oooooh”-ing, and the guys grinning and wishing they were Momoa.

Arthur also had the rapt attention of all of the ladies in the theater.  He is a pec-flexing presence, riding his more or less trademarked hulking, brooding lonerness into a genuine leading man.  In a time when manhood is widely attacked as toxic, Momoa is a virtual Three Mile Island of radiating masculinity, and real women love it. They, and men as well, love the Marvel-like humor that enlivens the movie and the characters.

In Mitch Albom’s classic book Tuesdays With Morrie, Morrie Schwartz tells Mitch: “love wins; love always wins.”  And so it does in Aquaman.  This, as well as the excellent technical qualities and production values of the movie, make it by far the best DC production to date, though even that is still a notch or two below Marvel’s average.

There are lessons, but progressives will not embrace them: peace through strength, and love conquers all (except sociopathic tyrants, of course.  They have to be crushed.).  In order to win and unite the world, Arthur must kill thousands–he must defeat evil–but he doesn’t waste any time whining about the nastiness of it all.  It’s necessary, though he will do all he can to avoid it, now and in the future.

Aquaman is not good art.  It’s not among the finest examples of cinema, but it is a good example of the best of the moviemaker’s technical craft.  It is a highly entertaining movie that leaves viewers looking forward to seeing Arthur, Mera, and Atlanna in the future, whether through a new Justice League movie, or in a stand alone sequel. It is worth seeing on the big screen, where the grand scope of the CGI work is best experienced, and surely worth owning on DVD.