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Fast-paced ‘Aquaman’ blends action and humor

December 20, 2018

Overheard in line for the new “Aquaman” film:

“Dude! Did you catch the sick new Aquaman in ‘Justice League’? Dude’s all jacked and digs surfing on sharks. He’s a bro-ceanographer!” 
“Yeah. Man, he is crushing it!” 
“Man, I’d love to know his CrossFit program!” 
“Dude, I’d just be happy to do some Jaeger-bombs with him!”

That is my vision for the target market of the latest incarnation of Aquaman, a dude-bro gym rat who is supposed to be the protector of the ocean, but in his very first scene in “Justice League” was seen chugging a bottle of whiskey and tossing the bottle in the surf.

I’ve been fine with each and every Batman incarnation (I even think Clooney could have added much with a better script), but “Justice League’s” version of the reluctant king of Atlantis was quite a stretch. From the gold-suited swimmer with dolphin telepathy to the tribal-tattoo-sporting, hulking mass of muscle known as Jason Momoa, it seemed DC was doing everything it could to distance itself from its earliest incarnations and make him, like, a more modern fish-man.

As it turns out, that was mostly from the mind of “League’s” director Zack Snyder, as Momoa shows here he is capable of more than just pec-flexing. There have been a few previous attempts to turn Momoa’s exotic look and sizable frame into a box-office commodity. In 2011, he was cast as the lead in the “Conan the Barbarian” reboot, and he has starred in a number of forgettable films (“Bullet to the Head,” “Wolves,” “Debug” and the puzzlingly stupid “The Bad Batch”).

But under the eye of director James Wan (from the “Fast and Furious” and “Saw” franchises), Momoa shows considerable appeal, crushing skulls and cracking wise, not unlike an actor with similar charisma, The Rock.

Let me be clear – he is not in the same dramatic league as that former-wrestler-turned-actor, but he does possess the same self-aware attitude that allows him to use his frame for fodder in both humor and action.

With “Aquaman,” Wan creates a world and story like a soggy Ragnarok with a water-logged Thor, taking our hero over some fairly sumptuous set pieces, switching gears from a small origin story to a road movie to a romantic comedy, and culminating in an underwater “Avatar.”

It’s largely an “Indiana Jones”-like yarn in which Momoa is Arthur Curry, a man with a mermaid for a mom, who is being recruited as the heir to the throne of Atlantis.

He’s coaxed into the role by the fiery-coiffed Mera (played by Amber Heard) a fellow Atlantian with whom Arthur strikes up the obligatory romance.

There’s a subplot involving Black Manta which, while giving the film its most exciting set piece, feels entirely useless.

Throughout, Wan dives into all the goofy, pulpy worlds first created in the comics some 70 years ago, including: an octopus playing the drums, sea turtles used as pack mules, gargantuan crabs fighting fish-men shooting underwater lasers and riding sharks, wine used as daggers (not in a bottle, mind you), and costumes that evoke an acid-tripping visit to an Esther Williams set.

It’s nowhere near as smart or savvy as “Thor: Ragnarok,” but the film’s sheer velocity is enough to keep things engaging throughout, and enough to pull the DC Cinematic Universe from the shadowy, self-serious depths in which it was dwelling and give it a goofy gloss that never bores.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.