Aquaman isn't a top to bottom disaster like other DC projects, but it's still a mess of varying tones that don't work and a lead actor with no screen presence.
Director: James Wan
Summary: Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.
The DC Universe hasn't exactly been hitting non-stop home runs since day one. It's been a very mixed bag, with most of the entries either getting a critical mauling or an indifferent shrug — except for Wonder Woman. After the disappointing Justice League we've had over a year to wait for Aquaman. There are too many things in motion for the outcome of this movie to really change anything, but DC could use a commercial and critical success. They are likely getting the former but the latter might be a little harder to get.
The things that work in Aquaman are things that work really well. Atlantis and all of the time we spend underwater is great. It's clear that a lot of work went into designing the city so it looks like something that might exist in the real world, but is fantastical enough that it's still fun. There are clearly customs in Atlantean culture and the movie does a decent job of the "show don't tell" when it comes to things of that nature. However, there are moments where this immersion is broken for exposition dumps.
The supporting cast is also fantastic, and Amber Heard as Mera is one of the standout characters of the film. She has clear motivations for her actions and might be more powerful than Arthur, considering how power over water. She doesn't get many chances to use that power, but the movie does find a few creative uses for it that you aren't expecting. She gets a few hand to hand fight scenes as well and Heard clearly put in a lot of work to look like a superhero. She's one of the best parts of the movie and they wisely keep her around for almost the entire production once she turns up.
Patrick Wilson brings some real depth to the villainous Ocean Master. There is a moment where he explains why he wants to rage war on the surface world by showing trash and warships and dying sea creatures and while you don't agree with the genocide you can understand why he hates humans. He's an over the top, scenery chewing villain, and he's clearly having a ball with it. It's almost entertaining to see him chew the scenery while standing next to Willem DaFoe as Vulko giving a very understated performance.
The movie has a heart but that heart lies with the relationship between Arthur's father Tom and Queen Atlanna. The opening scenes with them are fantastic and we get to see Nicole Kidman kick all sorts of butt. However, they aren't around each other after that prologue and nothing ever really tops that relationship.
However, for all of the things that work, the things that don't work are so essential that they nearly kneecap the entire production. The biggest issue is tone. The movie doesn't know what it wants to be. It wants to be a high flying adventure but they keep cracking terrible jokes. It wants to be light and fun then switches to horror when we get to the trenches. It wants to be everything to everyone and thus seems to have no real identity of its own. Aquaman is one of the rare movies that feels under-written at two and a half hours but is still overly long on the screen.
While the movie gives Ocean Master plenty of development, they don't give the same honor to Black Manta. They give him a rather sympathetic motivation, but he's really only around for one scene and then he vanishes for the rest of the movie.
Jason Momoa is one of the biggest problems with the film. He's a large human being and objectively a good looking one, but when it comes to screen presence he's just not there. Everyone around him is infinitely more interesting than he is, and his performance does nothing to make you want to follow him. None of his jokes land, and they often feel way too juvenile for someone who should be in his later twenties at the youngest. Momoa is overshadowed and pushed to the sideline of his own movie. It makes the supporting players that much stronger, but every time we cut back to him the movie grinds to a halt. There are times when he nearly breaks the immersion with a quippy one-liner that does not fit the rest of the movie.
Aquaman isn't a bad movie but it's not going to change anyone's life either. It's here, it'll make money, and we will all forget about it within the next month or so. To use a metaphor that is on brand for this review; Aquaman is like water vapor. Here one moment, gone the next, and all you feel is a little damp afterwards.