As a critic, especially when you get into the terrible business of predicting what may be in the popular franchise products of Marvel, DC and Star Wars, you open yourself up to bad takes, especially when you’re predicting something will fail. Such is the case of my 2018 column about the then-upcoming “Aquaman” movie, in which I predicted that the film would probably disappoint. I was wrong.
We were just about a year out from the infamous 2017 Joss Whedon cut of “Justice League,” and the wounds of the monumentally-terrible theatrical cut of “Batman v. Superman” was on my mind. Aquaman’s director, James Wan, was also hot off producing “Insidious: The Last Key,” which I was not a fan of. So, especially with Jason Momoa’s obnoxious performance in the Whedon cut in mind, I joined countless other critics in voicing a vote of no confidence against “Aquaman” before the film even came out.
And it was foolish, because it turns out “Aquaman” is pretty good, and after watching the Snyder Cut of “Justice League,” it’s clear that the version of Aquaman we got in his own standalone film fits way better into Snyder’s universe than whatever Whedon was trying to do in his version of the film.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” sets up key character traits and flaws that are expanded in “Aquaman.” For one, he’s stuck between two worlds — he was raised on the surface by his human father, but also has a duty to his mother’s Atlantis, who had a motherbox under their guard. And by the film’s end, Aquaman ends up embracing both worlds, but there is still conflict within him.
Note: I don’t care if Amber Heard’s Mera is British or that in the Snyder Cut Atlantians have to make physical air bubbles to talk versus speaking underwater like they do in this film — while they are continuity errors, they’re pretty unimportant, and even with them, this film connects much better with the version of Arthur Curry in Snyder’s Justice League than Whedon’s cut of the film.
The film’s plot is quite simple. Fleeing her tyrannical fiance, King Orvax of Atlantis, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) goes to the surface, where she falls in love with a lighthouse keeper named Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), and the two soon live together. But her peaceful life with him doesn’t last long, as Orvax’s forces eventually track her down, destroying their home, and Atlanna barely fights them off. She realizes she needs to leave Thomas and their son, Arthur, if they are to be safe. She is then forced to marry Orvax, and has a son with him named Orm (Patrick Wilson), who inherits the throne from Orvax when he dies. For her betrayal, Atlanna is banished to a place called the Trench, which is inhabited by the fishlike, savage “lost” tribe of Atlantis by the same name, where she was presumably devoured.
We then focus on present-day Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, who has been helping out people here and there after the events of “Justice League”. It’s still not exactly clear what his relationship with Atlantis is, other than the fact that his presence is known by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who has been his secret mentor growing up who has helped him master his Atlantian abilities, and Mera (Amber Heard), the princess of the Atlantian tribe of Xebel, and Orm’s fiancee; and we know he’s been to a small part of Atlantis in “Justice League.” But it seems that he’s never been to the capitol, and until his help defeating Steppenwolf, he’s been a blip on Atlantis’ radar.
This all changes when Orm decides he wants to unite all the realms of Atlantis in an attempt to destroy the surface world for their pollution of the ocean. Mera goes to the surface to ask Arthur for help, which he reluctantly agrees to after Mera saves his dad.
Early in the film, Arthur also makes a huge mistake. He foils Jesse Kane (Michael Beach) and his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who are leaders of a group of pirates. Arthur defeats them both when they attempt to hijack a ship, but it results in the ship sinking, and Jesse gets trapped on the ship in a way only someone with superhuman strength can free him from, and instead of being the better man and saving him, Arthur walks away and lets him drown, which is pretty brutal. For the rest of the film, David conspires with Orm in exchange for Atlantean technology, eventually becoming the iconic super villain Black Manta, complete with his classic laser-vision helmet.
Once at Atlantis, Arthur is immediately captured, and is given a chance to walk away, but instead decides to challenge Orm to an Atlantean duel, in which Arthur almost gets killed, but is narrowly saved by Mera. Out of options, the two embark on a quest to find a McGuffin called the Trident of Atlan, an artifact once belonging to Atlantis’ first ruler of the same name that will prove that he’s the true king of Atlantis.
Meanwhile, Orm one by one tries to convince, then force, the ruler’s of a majority of Atlantis’s tribes to support his cause. He starts with King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), who joins him through trickery, then kills King Ricou (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) of the fishlike humanoid Fisherman Kingdom when he refuses to join him, threatening further violence if the tribe does not comply. At this point, Orm is done with reasoning, and flat out decides to try to conquer the last functional Atlantean Kingdom, the crab-like Brine, led by the Brine King (John Rhys-Davies), which sets up a battle for the film’s climax.
Note: There are three other Kingdoms, known as the Fallen Kingdoms — the Trench, the Deserters, and the Lost — the last two of which seemed to have died out a long time ago. The Trench are mindless, and are of no use to Orm.
I’m not going to get into spoilers too much, but this is a superhero film, and you can reasonably assume that Arthur gets the Trident of Atlan and saves the day. And he even learned a lesson — that you shouldn’t leave even your enemies for dead and/or outright murder them, as he offers mercy and incarceration to Orm.
As a whole, “Aquaman” is a fantastic departure from the terrible, immature direction Whedon had the character going in his cut of “Justice League,” and despite the fact that I’m not a fan of all of his work — specifically “Insidious: The Last Key” — it’s clear that James Wan put in time, effort and love into developing the world of “Aquaman”, and as a result, it really feels like its own thing, and he really does lay out the groundwork for a fantastic movie franchise.
This could’ve easily been a — no pun intended — watered down a version of Aquaman’s very inconsistent lore, and though its overall story is still very generic, it does what it needs to as a superhero origins film, while presenting us with an imaginative world I wouldn’t mind spending a few more sequels in. It’s certainly more interesting than the “Thor” franchise’s Asgard, and I really like how Atlantis is made up of unique kingdoms all with their own unique physical adaptations, philosophies and politics.
Hopefully “Aquaman 2” lives up to the high bar this film set. At this point, I’m invested enough that I’m willing to commit to watching at least a trilogy in this world under the sea.
“Aquaman” gets an 8.5/10