Aquaman is the Gronk of the DC Universe.
Like the tight end for the Patriots, the fish-man is a uniquely talented physical specimen who has great instincts and a way of coming up big in the clutch — but he’s also a bit goofy and he likes to party in his off-hours.
The saving grace of director James Wan’s great-looking and reasonably entertaining but also meandering and sometimes truly ridiculous “Aquaman” is that everyone from Wan to the team of screenwriters through the talented cast seems to get the sheer, waterlogged lunacy of this story — so why not have fun with it?
We met Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman in the DC extended universe movies “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and “Justice League” (2017). Now he takes center stage in an origins story about the loner, free-spirit “half-breed” (his father was a lighthouse keeper, his mother the Queen of Atlantis) who knows he has special powers — but isn’t interested in claiming his rightful place as the ruler of the seas.
Until the stakes are so high, he doesn’t really have a choice. A reluctant, anti-hero superhero! There’s a new one, cough-cough.
Momoa’s Arthur is a giant, ripped, strikingly handsome, heavily tattooed hulk of a man with flowing, 1980s rock star hair, tons of interesting man-jewelry and a wardrobe of casual and stylish outfits that make him look like a former Olympic swimmer now in heavy demand as the coolest surf instructor on the Big Island.
(Arthur’s hairstyle seems particularly questionable, given he’s constantly getting wet and is forever whipping his head around to get those damp and tangled locks out of his face. Wouldn’t a sleek, shaved-head look be more practical?)
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Arthur is happily doing his thing in the water and (mostly) in the Surface World aka, dry land. He performs the occasional act of heroism, e.g., thwarting pirates who have taken command of a sub, and then hurries off to down pints of suds with his pops (Temuera Morrison), who still walks down to his dock every day in the hopes he’ll see Arthur’s mother Atlanna, the noble queen of Atlantis who disappeared some 20 years ago and is thought to be dead.
Ah, but there’s trouble bubbling beneath the surface, in the expansive and fantastical underwater world.
Turns out there’s a whole Thor-Loki sibling dynamic just waiting to explode. Arthur’s scheming, power-mad, younger half-brother, King Orm of Atlantis (Patrick Wilson), hungers for all-out war with the Surface World and is putting together an alliance with the leaders of the six other underwater kingdoms.
That’s right, it’s not just Atlantis way down below the ocean. There are seven kingdoms. I think my favorite is the Brine, populated by brave and noble and really disgusting-looking crustaceans, some of them bigger than a Godzilla.
In a prelude to the inevitable Final Confrontation, Arthur and Orm square off in “The Ring of Fire,” which looks like an underwater football stadium and is packed to the rafters with Atlanteans. Eventually the battle moves outside of the arena, which must have ticked off the Atlanteans who paid good money for their seats.
Amber Heard plays Mera, a young queen of the sea who is betrothed to Orm but saves Arthur’s life in the nick of time, even though Mera thinks Arthur is a dopey brute who doesn’t understand what’s at stake and she’d never be attracted to Arthur, ahem.
Mera is really cool. She’s smart and brave and fierce and beautiful, and she has long, magenta hair, as if Mera stopped off at a pop-up Halloween costume store and bought a fun wig on her way to battle. Oh, and Mera’s dad is King Nereus, who’s played by Dolph Lundgren, and let’s hear it for Dolph Lundgren having roles in TWO big movies this year. (See Drago, “Creed II.”)
Willem Dafoe is Vulko, who’s basically the Mr. Miyagi to Arthur’s Daniel-San — teaching him all kinds of moves, including a special trick. (Arthur even makes a “Cobra Kai” joke at one point.) Yahya Abdul Mateen II is unfortunately lost in the shuffle as the underdeveloped character of Black Manta.
“Aquaman” sags a bit in the middle, as Arthur and Mera team up for an “Indiana Jones” type adventure, searching for the long-lost Trident of Neptune, and yeah, it’s basically Thor’s hammer. The glorified scavenger hunt takes them to the Sahara, to hidden underwater communities — and even to Sicily, where they enjoy an interlude set to Roy Orbison’s “She’s a Mystery to Me” that feels like a scene from a romantic comedy accidentally spliced into a superhero film.
Jason Momoa is not the most expressive of actors, but he has the physicality and the willingness to make himself look silly and the natural charisma of a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. As the main villain, Patrick Wilson (a fine actor) sports some fantastic, color-coordinated outfits and elaborate facial armor that give off an “Eyes Wide Shut” meets Fashion Week Beneath the Sea vibe, but Wilson he doesn’t have the dark camp charm of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Nicole Kidman looks uncomfortable and almost confused as Atlanna, who has her own fashion-forward style even though she’s been in underwater exile for some 20 years and doesn’t seem to be living anywhere any boutiques or beauty parlors.
I don’t see “Aquaman” ever reaching icon status, but I’ll say this: He’s a lot more fun on his own, when he’s not saddled with those overly serious stiffs Superman and Batman.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by James Wan and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language). Running time: 143 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.