It's been a year since the disaster of Justice League and the fact that Aquaman is the only DC Comics movie of 2018 put tremendous pressure on director James Wan and star Jason Momoa to save the DC cinematic universe. Fortunately, Aquaman functions very well under extreme pressure. The new film is the latest stage in an effort to redeem one of the comics company's flagship characters, one of the very few not to disappear in the interval between the so-called Golden and Silver ages of comics and one of the most visible characters in animation thanks to his own show in the 1960s and the Super Friends show of the 1970s. Somewhere along the line Aquaman became a laughingstock because of his ability -- his primary attribute in many eyes -- to talk to fish. To correct that impression, DC Comics has often bent over backwards to portray the character as a badass, most notoriously when he sported a hook in place of one hand in the 1990s. Jason Momoa would seem an obvious choice to portray that sort of Aquaman, but his imposing physical presence allows him to get away with a more humorous take on the character. One of the few things Justice League got right was making the characters it introduced -- Cyborg and Flash as well as Aquaman -- likable in distinctive ways. Aquaman's way, in the movies, is to be the superhero you'd want to have a beer with. Momoa's ethnicity notwithstanding, Aquaman is the nearest thing we have to a white-trash superhero, albeit an amiable, non-alienating one. Some people have argued that Aquaman is little more than a variation on a formula set by Thor -- as if any superhero film set to any extent in a fantasy realm is ripping off that Marvel film. But if anything, Wan's picture is a reversal of the Thor formula. In his film, the hero is a fish out of water, so to speak, in his own kingdom, not in exile among us.
The new film is set some time after the events of Justice League. By now "the Aquaman" is more or less a known quantity, known or assumed to be an Atlantean, but not really a full-fledged public figure. He continues his low-key career of good deeds by rescuing a Russian submarine from some high-tech pirates but makes a long-term enemy of the son (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) of the pirate commander, whom Aquaman leaves to die for his bad choices, but who actually kills himself after tasking his son, soon to be known as Black Manta, with vengeance. Then it's back to hanging out with his dad (Temuera Morrison) who once upon a time had a fling with an Atlantean princess (Nicole Kidman) fleeing from an arranged marriage. This princess eventually was forced to return home, marry and birth a legitimate heir to the Altantean throne. When her affair and her terrestrial son became known, she was condemned to death. Her affair and her fate have embittered King Orm (Patrick Wilson) against the surface world, which has ages of pollution and depredation to answer for as well. Orm is trying to unite a number of undersea realms into a grand alliance that will confirm him as "Ocean Master" and enable him to wage war against the land. A clique of powerful insiders, including Orm's vizier (Willem Dafoe) and his bride-to-be (Amber Heard, seen briefly in Justice League) hope to avert war and see Aquaman, the man who could be King Arthur, as the answer to all problems. Orm is secretly collaborating with Black Manta to create provocations to drive the kingdoms into his embrace, while Aquaman, resenting Atlantis for killing his mom, rebuffs entreaties from below. Only when Orm launches a tidal-wave attack that nearly kills Arthur's dad does the hero agree to assert his claim against the fanatic king.
The story devolves into a Raiders-style treasure hunt for the sort of artifact that automatically confers legitimacy on he who wields it. The pursuit of this macguffin allows Aquaman to become a globetrotting James Bond style adventure and an all-out CGI explosion at the same time as Arthur and Mera follow clues above and below the surface in prickly partnership. All Atlanteans have superhuman strength and speed on land, so Mera is already a formidable heroine, but on top of that she has a special ability to manipulate water, pulling off stunts from drawing water out of Aquaman's scalp to attacking Atlantean goons with daggers of Sicilian wine. She's one of those longtime comics characters who's been upgraded in recent years from damsel-in-distress to kickass co-star, and whatever you think of Amber Heard's performance, the character certainly gets over. This film doesn't ask to be judged on its acting, however -- and that, given Wilson's vapid villainy, is probably a good thing. Aquaman is above all a pure spectacle, and you can believe while watching it that Justice League looked so cheap so often because most of Warner Bros' money was going into this film. It isn't that impressive at first, but kicks into super high gear in its relentless second half. It overwhelms you with imaginative battles between armies of shark-riding undersea cavalry and giant sentient crustaceans, among other things, filling the screen almost to overflowing with detail, and it also pulls off a tremendous extended parallel chase scene in Sicily as Mera fights off Atlantean pursuers across the rooftops while Aquaman deals with an upgraded Black Manta. There are times when throwing everything but the kitchen sink (though I may have missed that) at the audience is a good thing, and Aquaman is one of those occasions. For all that the future of a movie "universe" was riding on this film, it has an admirable nothing-to-lose recklessness to it, exemplified when at the end of his quest our hero encounters an immense sea monster, half kraken and half kaiju, and it talks to him -- in what must have been meant as a flagant F.U. to Disney, whose Mary Poppins reboot premiered the same week -- in the gravelly tones of Julie Andrews. If Justice League at nearly all points seemed cautious and stunted, Aquaman has the sort of creative insanity that when done right can justify a comic-book movie's existence. At the same time, Momoa clearly has more of a grip on the title character than he's ever had before as an actor, and may be able to take credit for molding Aquaman into his own self-image. If this was a make-or-break moment for the DC movie franchise, then Momoa should be a made man in Hollywood for literally saving a universe.