Taken-aback by Aquaman

Last night I watched Acquman, and I approached the film with few expectations but with a hope that I would at least be entertained.

(I didn’t see this trailer before watching the film – it is a surprisingly good highlight of what the film is about.)

Acquman delivers the action and fantastic visuals that I wanted – not too surprising with director James Wan at the helm – but it also added unexpected depth across all the characters along with a deep mythological resonance and an environmental message.

Cross the line and you’ll encounter spoilers.

The plot is: Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is the offspring of a human Dad (Tom Curry – Temuera Morrison) and Queen Atlanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and is thus the inheritor of the Kingship of Atlantis. This union is viewed as treason by the Atlantians, and when they come to retrieve their recalcitrant Queen she decides to return rather than put her loved ones in danger. We subsequently discover she submitted to her arranged marriage and had a ‘legitimate’ son, Orm (Patrick Wilson) – but once it was discovered she had a previous child she was ‘sacrificed to the Trench’ by her jealous husband.

Arthur has led a feckless life since then, swearing off his Atlantian brethren (after some rigorous training by his mother’s friend Vulko – Willem Dafoe) and concentrating on drinking and swimming until being goaded into action by the Justice League. In this movie the call to action comes from the ambition of his younger half-brother, Orm, who is now King. He plans on attacking the landlubbers who have been tossing their garbage into the waters for centuries, and considering the power that is within Orm’s reach if he can unite the divided Atlantian realms, then their overthrow of the human world is assured.

A princess of one of the kingdoms, Mera, arrives to force the unwilling Arthur back to Atlantis to stop the war. She’s the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren).  It is only when Arthur witnesses the power at Orm’s disposal to destroy the human world that he agrees. Arthur initially confronts Orm in a gladiator-style challenge, but is rescued by Mera as he’s about to be killed. What follows is a quest film, where Arthur must find a powerful artefact – the famed Trident of Atlan – which will prove him as the ‘one true king’.

The B-plot comes in the form of the ruthless pirate David Hyde (Black Manta – Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who hijacks a submarine on the orders of Orm, but loses his father Jesse (Michael Beach) in the process. Arthur could have saved the man but left him to die, and this fuels the burning hatred and desire for revenge that drives David’s actions for the rest of the film.

Along the way Orm proves himself a heartless killer to unite his kingdoms, and Arthur and Mera have a number of globe-trotting adventures until they are forced to go into the frightening Trench to retrieve the trident. Lo and behold, after a trip through a portal they arrive at a special sea at the centre of the world where Atlanna is alive, but trapped (there are dinosaurs!). Arthur must face the Karathen – a gargantuan leviathan (voiced by Julie Andrews) – in order to take the trident. It’s Arthur’s ability to telepathically communicate with all forms of sea creatures that is the defining element that marks him as king. The Karathen recognises his authority, Arthur takes the trident, obtains a new suit of armour, and then we have an enormous sea battle where Orm is attempting the subdue the final kingdom of Atlantis to his dominion.

And what a visual treat this set-piece is: huge sea horses, armoured sharks, ill-tempered giant crabs, futuristic submersibles, and nasty weapons all round. Arthur emerges from the ocean floor on the back of the leviathan wielding the trident and even the racist Atlantians accept him as King, especially when he rallies all the sea creatures in the ocean to his aid. Atlanna is revealed as being still alive, and Orm is taken into custody, but after Arthur extends an olive branch. The ocean kingdoms are united… for now.

But Black Manta has not given up on his vengeance, and he’s spoiling for another round with Aquaman.

Essentially Aquaman is a reworking of the King Arthur myth – Arthur is the magical child raised in seclusion and trained by a mentor. He comes to power by retrieving a magical weapon and being recognised as the true king. He must battle enemies and mythical creatures, but brings humans and Atlantians to his side because his heroic qualities supersede tribal allegiance. There is even an internecine conflict that provokes a massive war.

The Arthur mthyos is deeply tied into pagan traditions where the kingship was a sacred duty granted by nature, which was often embodied by women. Hence Mera intervenes when the two brothers are close to killing themselves, and then Atlanna stops the men fighting again at the end. It is the Karathen, embodiment of chthonic forces, who accepts his sovereignty and grants him the legendary weapon.

Although Momoa plays Arthur with the hyper masculinity you’d expect in this kind of film, Arthur repeatedly admits to his mistakes and weaknesses, has no problem accepting the help of women, and demonstrates that he is smarter than he lets on (he inhabits his role as amiable, attractive lunk so well he forgets he is capable of solving problems without resorting to his fists).

There is a general absence of women in the film (just look at the ruling classes and the armies) but at least Mera and Atlanna are complex, well-written, and very well acted. The film is improved by the force of the actors – with Abdul-Mateen’s smoldering hatred being very believable.

Much credit must go to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall who wrote the screenplay based on a story by Geoff Johns, James Wan and Will Beall  (Aquaman was created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris). There are at least two moments when they interrupt exposition by a sudden explosion, layer in back story as well as you can, and they work hard to bring out emotional moments without them devolving into twee sentiment.

James Wan’s direction is magnificent – the double battle between Mera and the Atlantians and Arthur versus Black Manta in Sicily was a stand-out action sequence: incredibly choreographed and assuredly shot.

Plus, I’m all in for any film which features a plethora of monsters combined with high tech weaponry. It’s a science fiction fantasy miracle. Fans of Kaiju films are missing out if they don’t watch Aquaman.

All the deep ocean fantastical scenes are vibrant and astonishingly well rendered, which means this is a movie to watch on the big screen. So get thee to a cinema!

Thank goodness DC is breaking away from some of its duller, heavier cinematic predecessors. This is a robust, entertaining film that doesn’t shy away from embracing its magic and outlandishness. By tying it into a deep-rooted myth, and giving the leads to talented actors, they have reinvented Aquaman as a character you’d pay to go to the cinema to watch.

Maura McHugh

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