If the plot of James Wan’s (The Conjuring series, the Insidious series, Saw) big-screen adaptation of DC’s Aquaman – a reluctant hero born of two worlds, one technologically advanced beyond all (or rather some) imagination, forced to set aside his selfishness, ego, and contempt and embrace his heritage, literally fighting for his birthright in trident-to-trident combat in an arena, followed by loss, redemption, and the rest – sounds more than vaguely familiar, it’s because it should. Though likely unintentional, Aquaman’s credited screenwriters, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall (Wan shares a story credit), followed the Black Panther template practically beat for reverse beat, turning a reluctant outsider into a reluctant hero and leader while turning his born-to-be-king brother into a hardcore, ideological warrior eager to bring a world of hurt and pain to those who’ve wronged his underwater-dwelling people (and all marine life too). Basically, it’s superhero template filmmaking, but like Black Panther, it’s the details, it’s what you do within and outside the confines of that template, that dictate whether the result will be genre-elevating commercial or political art like Black Panther or – in the case of Aquaman – purely commercial entertainment.
With a name like “Arthur,” the title character (played as a dude-bro by Jason Momoa as an adult, more or less) is all but destined for a “destiny” with a capital “D” (also, hey, Joseph Campbell and the “Hero’s Journey,” it’s been a while). When he’s not saving Russian sailors on a Russian submarine from the once and future Black Manta (Yayha Abdul-Mateen II), and his soon-to-be-departed father, Jesse (Michael Beach, gone too soon), he’s kicking back at a local seaside pub, slamming brews with his permanently depressed father, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). Tom desperately misses Arthur’s mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a onetime runaway Atlantean princess and future queen who left an arranged marriage behind for domestic, unwedded bliss with Tom and later, young Arthur. When Atlantean soldiers find her living among humankind, she initially fights back – giving Kidman’s stunt double the opportunity to put her martial arts training into speeded-up, Marvel-style action – but ultimately relents, returning to Atlantis and the arranged marriage that was put on hold years earlier.
Arthur might play superhero from time to time (e.g., saving those sailors wearing only a pair of soggy jeans and a literal boatload of tattoos, joining the Justice League last year to save the world from an already forgotten supervillain, etc.,), but he doesn’t see himself as a leader, let alone the king that an Atlantean defector, the flame-haired Mera (Amber Heard), thinks he might be. Arthur needs to overcome not only his reluctance – man of two worlds, master of none – and his younger half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), the current occupant of the Atlantean throne. Tired of the exploitation and abuse heaped on the world’s oceans by surface dwellers, Orm wants to reunite what remains of the seven undersea kingdoms (he needs a net majority of four) and wipe out and/or subdue surface dwellers under his rule. Confronting Orm in armed combat (hello again, Black Panther) will solve everybody’s problems except Arthur’s no match for Orm underwater. Instead, Arthur, true to his mythical name, and Mera have to go questing for the Atlantean equivalent of King Arthur’s sword (spoiler alert: It’s a trident).
Directing like a man given a terminal diagnosis, Wan embraces the utter absurdity of Aquaman’s comic-book origins, cramming Aquaman with enough material to fit a five- or six-part miniseries. Aquaman pairs up Arthur and Mera as a romantic couple to mirror his parents, then throws them into an underwater sci-fi flick, with Atlantean architecture and weaponry betraying a distinct Tron-like feel, before turning Aquaman back into a brother-against-brother story, a mini-Indiana Jones side quest for the trident-to-end-all-tridents, an Aliens-style horror flick (admittedly one of Aquaman’s better subplots), a surprising trip into old-school, Jules Verne/Edgar Rice Burroughs territory, and finally an all-out war featuring vast, Lord of the Rings-inspired CGI armies filled with armored sharks, giant seahorses, anti-Atlantean, self-aware crustaceans (the Brine), and giant, kaiju-style monsters that put the two-film Pacific Rim series to almost complete shame.
But at an overstuffed, overlong 143 minutes, Aquaman can’t escape the bloat that’s creped into the superhero genre over the last decade. More isn’t necessarily better and neither is a plot heavy on exposition and flashbacks and short on logic and sense. But logic and sense aren’t always necessary in the superhero genre. Sometimes they’re actually obstacles. At least that’s how Wan and his screenwriting team obviously see Aquaman and the underwater world he inhabits. Emphasizing a steady stream of action beats and – in a welcome turn from the Snyderverse’s embrace of the grimdark approach – humor, even Momoa’s brand of borderline obnoxious dude-bro humor, Wan doesn’t exactly reinvent the superhero genre, but he makes Aquaman’s submerged corner of DC’s movie universe worth revisiting once or twice.