Growing up coastal, I dreamed of swimming with dolphins and yet recognized both the horror and the wonder of the oceans. What person leaving coastal hasn’t known someone or heard of someone who drowned on what was to have been a joyful day at the beach? In his first DC universe outing, James Wan gives us both the wonder and the horror of the deep sea, but the main horror story is the eco disaster that humans have created and how the denizens of the deep are tempted to rise in revenge.
That’s right…this is an eco message movie with an action hero at the center, a hapa-licious hero. Marvel-verse has faltered with handling Asian-Pacific Islander issues. Dr. Strange, gave us an Asian sidekick and the race and gender switch of the Ancient One. “Iron Fist” was another white man does it better than Asians without the charm of Karate Kid or the historical context of the TV series, “Kung Fu.” Spider-man (“Homecoming”) had another Asian Pacific Islander sidekick (Ned the gamer played by Jacob Batalon). Yet DC’s “Aquaman,” unlike “Kung Fu,” has a real hapa, Jason Mamoa, playing a hapa–except in this case half-human, half-Atlantean, and a hapa, New Zealander Temuera Morrison, playing his father. Warner Bros., and DC diversify superherohood to Asian Pacific Islanders in “Aquaman” and polish that pearl with a Malaysian-born Aussie director, James Wan. The Pacific Islander pride was on full display at the Hollywood opening, too.
This action hero is a blue-collar guy. He’s a beer-chugging brawling brute, with long unruly hair and a beard that is offset by an impressive set of tattoos–none that glow in the dark (like Marvel’s Remi “Jane Doe” Briggs in “Blindspot”) nor do they move and tell stories (“Blindspot” and “Moana”).
In this version of Aquaman, our hero’s name is Arthur (played by Hawaii-born Jason Momoa but Otis Dhanji at 13 and Kaan Guldur at 8), the product of a romantic liaison between lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) before she queened up by marrying her political marriage to a king. She promises to return, and Thomas looks for her every day at the end of the pier.
As a child, Arthur had sympathy for the animals and they for him. When bullies try to pick on him during a school outing to an aquarium, a large shark tries to come to his defense and Arthur calms him and the other sea creatures through telepathy.
Flash forward to a high tech pirate crew taking over a sub, the pirates led by Jesse Kane (Michael Beach) and his son David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) make you think about the old glass house adage. Is it really wise to shoot high-powered automatic weapons in a sub if you’re human and can’t breathe underwater? I’d say, “no,” but in my world, when people are dead they usually stay dead. In the DC universe and other comic-verses, dead is a relative state of mind–resurrection is always a possibility and then there’s the alternate timelines. But I digress.
After rescuing the Soviet sailors from the high-tech pirates, Aquaman has a chance to save Jesse, and David pleads for Aquaman’s help. Aquaman leaves Jesse to the fate of the sea before speeding all the lifeboats with the sailors to shore. Was Aquaman’s cold attitude the result of missing Happy Hour or a unkingly lack of empathy (or a writer’s device because what fuels a better villain than revenge)?
Now what calls Aquaman away from his beer-drinking bar days? A war is brewing in the watery realms. The seven kingdoms under the seas are grumbling about the pollution and even sending it back to the surface dwellers. Although the comely Mera (Amber Heard) visits Aquaman to remind him that he has a claim to the thrown of Atlantis as the first-born son of Atlanna, and if he doesn’t rise to the throne, his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson from “The Conjuring” ) will.
Aquaman doesn’t consider himself a king but in flashbacks we see that while his mother never returned to see him or her true love, in her stead, she sent the royal advisor, Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who explored what powers the young Arthur had from his mother and taught him Atlantean combat skills.
The audience also knows something that Aquaman does not. DC Comics universe has it tech geniuses, but Manta’s men aren’t getting their technology from the land; he has an alliance with one of the Atlanteans.
Orm is busy trying to convince other undersea races to unify under him. He already has the support of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), Mera’s father. Orm doesn’t rely just on diplomacy and he also has a revenge motive–he hates Arthur because their mother was banished to the Trench and its monsters and never returned. Of course, once mentioned, you know we have to go there and director Jason Wan lives up to his horror movie background when we experience the dreaded Trench. And you’ll begin to think about the possible cousins of that Creature from the Black Lagoon. In this case, there’s no swimmingly swoon-worthy dance number.
Besides Orm, the high-tech pirates haven’t been defeated, but now are led by a revenge-focused son, David Kane. Aquaman/Arthur Curry will have to contend with both Orm and David Kane/Black Manta, but he also will have the aid of Mera and Nuidis. Like his mother who was banished to the Trench, Aquaman will have to face both the creatures of the Trench and the most powerful sea monster of all, wonderfully voiced by Julie Andrews.
While I’m not convinced that the chemistry between Heard and Momoa is anything worth fitting a war over–in the water or out, nor am I a fan of her shade of red hair which seems weirdly out of place when compared to the more normal shades of Aquaman, Nuidis and Orm, this movie has its moments. The CGi creates a fantasy world that all former mermaid-wannabes would love to swim in. The multiculturalism is worth noting and particularly in the way that Momoa makes it more than just matter of biology by performing a male-bonding dance from New Zealand with his filming bros.
Wan has brought his islander sensibilities, specifically saying that it was important that this super hero movie had a message and the message isn’t over-stated or preachy. It provides more meaning and the catalyst for both the war between water and earth worlds as well as a good reason for why, if anyone should be king of the seas, it should be Aquaman.