What Makes 'Aquaman' Such a Hit

'Aquaman,' starring Jason Momoa, Nicole Kidman and Amber Heard, is a breath of fresh air in DC Comics' depressing universe

Jason Momoa, in “Aquaman.” The screenwriters grasped the potential latent in the sea, the world’s biggest territory, as mysterious as outer space.
Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

"Aquaman" is a walking – and swimming – punch line. DC Comics knows that, veteran fans know it, and now other moviegoers know it, too. He’s still a successful superhero, one of the old-timers of the group, a founder of the Justice League – but in popular culture he’s considered a ridiculous figure whose world is even more ludicrous. Which is precisely why “Aquaman” is a breath of fresh air for DC’s cinematic universe, which was collapsing under the weight of its earlier efforts.

It’s been five years since Warner Bros. Pictures launched a screen universe based on DC Comics characters, in the form of “Man of Steel.” The director, Zack Snyder, set the tone for movies that projected an ominous mood, in an attempt to compete with the successful parallel universe of Marvel Studios, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. After DC was criticized for the gloomy world of “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League,” director Patty Jenkins and actress Gal Gadot showed, in “Wonder Woman,” that it was possible to depart from Snyder’s somber world.

The studio went a step further by giving Aquaman a movie of his own. Because he operates extraterritorially he’s capable of engaging in wilder action than the others – his exploits needn’t disrupt planned plotlines in the DC universe. James Wan, the director, who’s made two popular horror series – “Saw” and “The Conjuring” – was given the opportunity to adapt the hero to a new generation. Far from ignoring the ludicrous legacy, he happily adopted everything that’s weird and funny about the hero – and then added an octopus that bangs out a rhythm on bongos.

We’ve already met Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, “Game of Thrones”) in guest appearances alongside Superman and Batman, but despite that, the new picture is devoted to the story of his origins and how he became Aquaman – sequined suit and iconic pitchfork included. Curry is the offspring of forbidden love between a human lighthouse keeper and the queen of Atlantis, who met by chance on a pier. Their relationship was short-lived, because Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, with a heavy layer of pixels that make her look like a young mother) was kidnapped back to the depths.

Nicole Kidman in the role of Aquaman's mom. A heavy layer of pixels.
Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

Arthur is raised by his dad in the lighthouse, but the marine nobleman Vulko (Willem Dafoe, with a similar layer of pixels) surfaces occasionally in order to reconnect him to Mom’s genes. He teaches his offspring how to breathe underwater, hobnob with fish and other denizens of the deep, swim like a torpedo – and of course how to perfect the ancient art of pitchfork combat.

In the absence of his mother, Arthur has no interest in bonding with her family. Instead, he opts to be a surfer without a surfboard. His long hair and beard flutter in the wind, tribal tattoos cover his body, and a mug of beer is usually within reach. His good-hearted nature is typically reflected in maritime forays to assist sailors being victimized by pirates. But no longer. Something is rotten in the kingdom of Atlantis, and his name is Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother. His aim is to unite all the kingdoms in the sea – of which there are quite a few, including crab people – in order to conquer the land and put a stop to the pollution of the oceans.

Unfortunately for Orm, Mera (Amber Heard), a princess from another marine kingdom, is suspicious of his intentions. She finds Arthur and persuades him to join her on a worldwide journey, in sea and on land alike, in search of a legendary pitchfork that will give him the power to claim his rightful place as king of Atlantis.

“Aquaman,” like the half-human, half-Atlantan being at its center, is a hybrid creation of superhero movies in the DC universe, an Indiana Jones-style adventure that intertwines elements of fantasy and science-fiction. The screenwriters grasped the potential latent in the sea, the world’s biggest territory, which is as mysterious to humanity as outer space. The sea of “Aquaman” is teeming with bizarre creatures and magnificent cultures, some still flourishing, others deteriorating. The maritime civilization created here is given much respect and thought as the foundation for the plot and as a central element of the action sequences. But that wisdom didn’t seep into the plot itself. In it, Aquaman is just another superhero who has to find a certain object in order to save the world from a malicious villain with whom he has a personal score to settle.

Amber Heard as Princess Mera.
Jasin Boland/AP

What makes “Aquaman” an interesting, not-easily-forgotten film is above all its ludicrousness. The director surrenders himself to it wholeheartedly and allows the audience to guffaw with him. The gray hues of DC movies is replaced by blue, and the darkness by laid-back lightheartedness. The self-importance that’s associated with superheroes is still in evidence – after all, there’s a world to be saved – but it’s spiced up with creative visuals and a spirit of nonsense, notably the appallingly dumb dialogues and the total absence of internal logic. At one moment the villain is piloting a hyper-sophisticated submarine, and at another he’s riding a shark like a cowboy on a horse. Why? Because he can! Or, more precisely: If it looks good, who cares?

The underwater world of Atlantis and its neighboring kingdoms makes effective use of the latent possibilities in this unconventional cinematic environment. After two decades in which superheroes have dominated the big screen, amid dazzling special effects and destruction on a vast scale – general satiety and a certain dulling of the senses have set in among moviegoers. If 20 years ago the sight of a skyscraper blowing up in “Armageddon” could wow an audience, today a scene showing a whole city being laid waste is liable to generate a collective yawn.

The biggest advantage of “Aquaman” lies in the sea, and more especially in the distinctive laws of physics that prevail within it. The designers have done a terrific job creating a world with all its small and entertaining details. The hair of the characters is always in motion, for example; and even if that’s distracting for the viewer, it reminds him constantly that we are in the oceanic depths.

The sea turns out to be a marvelous setting for action scenes, enabling a different sort of choreography for battles and the way they’re shot. Imagine a regular brawl in which two people are flailing at one another – only there’s no floor, wall or ceiling. Even gravity operates differently amid the currents. The potential is vast, and if there’s one problem with Wan’s directorial style it’s that he sometimes realizes it far too cogently with shots that leave you dizzy.

A scene from "Aquaman."
Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

As in all superhero movies, the action reaches a peak in the concluding scenes, and in “Aquaman” the inspiration appears to have come from the world of Tolkien and George Lucas. The huge clash between heroes and villains against a background of special effects and quick cuts is predictable, but in the “Aquaman” sea it’s a world war, or a war of worlds, in which whole armies do battle, with a host of creatures and monsters. The collision is colossal, impressive – and ridiculous, of course.

If you surrender to its spirit, “Aquaman” is so exaggerated and off-the-wall that it succeeds in delivering the goods. Even if the film lacks pointed, self-deprecating humor, as in “Deadpool,” it is marked by self-awareness. This is a pretty dumb movie, but that appears to be its purpose, as its makers will be the first to admit. In return, viewers get a superhero flick that, while not comparable to “Black Panther” or “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse,” does offer light, colorful entertainment.

Maybe the best way to understand the essence of “Aquaman” is to note that it casts Dolph Lundgren as an underwater king who rides a seahorse. Need we say more?