Warner Bros have had a pretty rocky time over the last five years since the release of Man of Steel. That particular Zack Snyder feature marked the beginning of the current DCEU (or whatever they're calling it these days) and was subject to mixed reactions, to put it mildly. After a few years of playing catch-up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and more downs than ups, 2018 gives us James Wan’s blockbuster opus Aquaman. Along with Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, it seems the ship has found calm waters, for now.
Stepping out of the depths of Snyder's grim vision and into the light, Wan and company have crafted one of the most entertaining adventure films to come along in quite some time. The filmmaker behind horror films like The Conjuring was one of the main reasons anyone was getting excited for an Aquaman movie in the first place. He's proven himself before in regards to blockbusters with his terrific Furious 7 and does so again here with the latest picture based on a DC Comics hero. With his now signature sweeping camera and inventive visual flair, Wan clearly knows what he's doing. Reteaming with his The Conjuring 2 DP Don Burgess, the camera is always in motion, moving through action sequences with ease and never letting the viewer lose track of what's on display. It's a minor miracle in the current age of ADHD style editing and breakneck pace that WB let them actually put their stamp on the film. A stamp that's more than welcome after the garish and uninspired look of last year's Justice League.
Revitalized as more than a joke a few years back with Geoff Johns’s New 52 run, Aquaman includes elements from that story and incorporates Indiana Jones globe-trotting adventure and epic Lord of the Rings style battles and lore. The character, portrayed here by Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones), is an aquatic badass and a hero in the classic action mold. His Aquaman/Arthur Curry is filled with charisma and quips for days, and Momoa has an enthusiasm on-screen that's infectious. He completely owns the character here and is helped by a game supporting cast. The chemistry between Aquaman and Mera, played by Amber Heard, is just another highlight in a movie that's filled with them. Rounding out Aquaman’s support team is Willem Dafoe, portraying his trainer and mentor Vulko. Dafoe is clearly having a blast, getting to play both sides of the underwater conflict that could lead to the destruction of Earth. Another performer clearly having the time of their life is Nicole Kidman as Arthur's mother Atlanna, introduced early on as a capable warrior in the movie’s first fight scene that's just a tease for the wild action that comes later.
The story itself is nothing new to anyone that's seen a “save the world adventure” before but it's still an entertaining ride thanks to the villains. A hero is nothing without a great adversary, and Aquaman offers two of the best in the DCEU yet. If one big negative can be lobbed at 2017’s Wonder Woman, it's that the Big Bad was lackluster to say the least. This isn't the case here with Patrick Wilson as Prince Orm, Arthur's half brother and the power hungry de facto leader of Atlantis. Known to comic readers as Ocean Master, a name that's both awesome and silly in equal measure, his story concerns uniting the Seven Seas against the world of the surface dwellers. We get some great creature designs and action set-pieces as he travels to each kingdom to gain their allegiance. Joined by King Nerus, played by Dolph Lundrgen, having a great run lately with Creed II and this, these sequences are all world building, something that Wan apparently excels at.
The other foil for Aquaman is the deadly pirate Black Manta, a favorite from the comics and a tragic figure in Wan's film. Out for revenge against Arthur, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, previously seen in Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, has a great presence and formidable weapons at his disposal. His big fight sequence in a seaside town in Sicily is one of the best parts of the entire movie, with the aforementioned sweeping camera recalling the motorcycle chase in Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. With almost zero cuts, Wan sweeps through the town going back and forth between fights between Aquaman and Black Manta as well as Mera’s battle with Manta’s soldiers to great effect. It's awe-inspiring and something that other genre filmmakers should take note of.
The live action DC films have been admittedly shaky and their current status in a state of flux, but they've proven here and with Wonder Woman, that if you get inspired directors to take the helm, you'll get inspired results. If you had told me years ago that a movie based on Aquaman, the butt of numerous jokes over the years, would be the focus of one of the best action movies of 2018, I would've laughed in your face. Yet, here we are, and he is.