A raging storm washes Nicole Kidman's lithe, unconscious body onto shore. In a school's excursion to an aquatic zoo, a boy discovers his ability to communicate with aquatic animals.
A submarine is violently rocked from beneath after the captain has been brutally murdered with an 11-inch blade. The rest of the naval crew are being held captive. Ding, ding, ding!. Jason Momoa drops in through the roof of the submarine, landing with a bang, a dizzying picture of rippling muscles, tattoos and wet hair. He is not a superhero or Aquaman, at least not yet. But his entrance is gorgeous and assertive and messianic, and sets the tone for the movie's baser popcorn thrills.
Aquaman, which floods into theaters on Friday, has been teased since the announcement of the DCEU movie Justice League in 2014, which was a financial failure at the box office last year. The need for DC to recover, and strategise, has bore fruit in Aquaman, but the risk involved was hiring horror specialist James Wan to direct the project. Wan is known for helming Saw, one of the biggest horror franchises, so what could go wrong? Nothing, only that Jason Momoa's hulking body covered more than half of the screen in the movie's 143 minutes runtime, diving and propelling through vast CGI waters and telling a character he prefers being called “Fish Man” instead of “Fish Boy.” Aquaman is that kind of goofy.
Set after the events of Justice League, Momoa is still Arthur Curry and the movie installs itself as an origin story: Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) from the underwater world Atlantis and her illegitimate affair with Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). As such, Arthur is half-human/half-Atlantean, and the bulk of the movie documents his journey towards self-actualisation and the delicate friction between Atlantis and the surface world. His half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) has grown to resent Arthur and people of the surface, seeking to wage war against a world that has polluted Atlantis and its ecology. Meanwhile, Arthur is guided by red-haired sidekick Mera (Amber Heard) and Vulko (Willem Dafoe), into returning to Atlantis to stop the war and take his place as king. Of course, this pits Orm and Arthur against each other, and Wan who reportedly was given creative control for Aquaman makes one of the best underwater design I have seen: lush, shimmering, bursting with the extravagant stupor that comes close to Zack Snyder's starter films for DC.
Most remarkably, Momoa's masculinity channeled through Arthur is nuanced to show appropriate emotions: entering Atlantis with Mera through a back channel, he is hesitant, timid. In another scene, he is mildly, boyishly terrified in a marine shuttle as Mera drives them away from Atlantean security seeking to capture them. The action set pieces in are delicately constructed to hit audiences with a heightened impact (or maybe because I saw the movie in an IMAX theatre?). At its core, Aquaman is a story of family, once splintered in the beginning and then united at the end. That Arthur was born seems predestined, bridging the divide between water and land. Aquaman is the best of both worlds.
Bernard Dayo is a freelance writer and critic on film and media. His works have been published on Guardian Life, YNaija, More Branches, Culture Custodian, to name a few.