Any Aquaman vehicle arrives with plenty of negative flotsam to overcome. For decades, DC Comics' pelagic paragon has been ridiculed in popular culture, largely based on the character's neutered portrayal in the old Super Friends cartoon, but also for his corny trident and goofy telepathic communication with ocean life.
The powers that be that preside over the DC Extended Universe further hobbled this intellectual property by previewing him with cameo appearances in “Batman v. Superman” and “Justice League,” consequently associating him with two Zack Snyder critical disappointments despite a radical makeover in the form of Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones”) as a tattooed aquatic biker.
Given this baggage, the makers of Aqauman's stand-alone debut were faced with a decision: embrace the inherent ridiculousness of their subject (like Marvel's “Iron Man” and “Ant-Man”) or fight the character's cultural stigma by approaching the story and themes with a strong dose of earnestness (like DC's biggest success, “Wonder Woman”). Based on the resulting mish-mash of characters, story lines, and tones that fill this overlong (at nearly 2 1/2 hours) spectacle, the answer was, "All of the above."
A pre-titles sequence attempts to set a serious tone as Aquaman's human father Thomas Curry, a lighthouse-keeper, spies a body washed up on the shore after a storm. Imagine the audience's surprise at discovering Nicole Kidman lying unconscious on the rocks in a scaly wetsuit with trident in hand. Apparently slumming as Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, Kidman's merwoman takes up residence at the lighthouse and bears little Arthur Curry, the half-human, half-Antantean who will grow up to be Aquaman.
Abruptly flashing forward a couple of decades or so, grown -up Arthur rips open the hatch of a submarine and drops in to save the vessel from pirates. As an electric guitar doodles something reminiscent of the Bill and Ted air-guitar riff, Momoa flips his drenched locks over his tattooed shoulder, smirks at the camera, and quips, "Permission to come aboard?" Arthur, it turns out, doesn't mind the occasional rescue, as long as it doesn't cut into happy-hour. And Momoa, for his part, doesn't seem to mind his role as aquatic beefcake. Perhaps, films are beginning to see the rise of a female gaze.
These conflicting tones persist throughout the film as screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“Wrath of the Titans”) and Will Beall (“Gangster Squad”) spin out a multitude of stories, characters, and backgrounds. There's a budding romance between Arthur and Antlantean warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), who has ventured onto land seeking Arthur's help. His long-lost half-brother (Patrick Wilson), Orm, is intent on waging war on Earth's terrestrial inhabitants for ruining the ocean realms with our pollution. To defeat Orm, however, Arthur must retrieve the Trident of Atlan, which can only be wielded by the true king of Atlantis (get it: Arthur?). Meanwhile, one of those pirates from the sub has made himself an armored and, dubbing himself Black Manta, seeks revenge on Aquaman. Director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) is left the thankless task of trying to gather all these loose ends into a unified vision, something he achieves only fitfully.
Arthur's first glimpses of the undersea civilizations are rendered with impressive CG effects, all florescent colors and coral-clad sprires, the screen bustling with man-bun-wearing mermen and jellyfish-attired merwomen astride sea horses and armored sharks or aboard spiny, finned vehicles shaped like eels and rays. However, scenes of the main characters moving about the same aquatic environment never successfully escape the impression of actors on wires.
Regardless, any moments of wonder are inevitably interrupted by a never-ending series of battles, expository speeches and flashbacks. The subplot with archenemy Black Manta, feels like an afterthought, its scenes divorced entirely from the main plot and Manta histrionically gesticulating like a cheesy Power Rangers villain. Patrick Wilson feels completely miscast, reaching ludicrous peaks of fury as he routinely bellows to the ocean depths about his desire to become an "Ocean Master," whatever that is.
At half the length and approached with a consistent tone, “Aquaman” might have managed to rise above its middling DC brethren.