Several days ago I found myself floored by the dense sound design work on Mary Poppins Returns; the whacky admiral neighbor’s promised hourly cannon shots were woven deeply into every scene, even when the codger was nowhere near the events playing out in front of me. Then I realized we were sharing a wall with an IMAX screening of Aquaman. That particular film, a long promised reformation of a belittled DC character writ bold and buff by Jason Momoa, is so full of explosions and noisy impacts that I might recommend earplugs. Horror stalwart James Wan knows the value of suspenseful silence shattered by a jump, so every time you can actually hear the score or a line is quietly delivered, expect the moment to be shattered with a laser beam explosion, bone cracking punch, or perhaps even a laser beam punch—I don’t remember one specifically but I’m pretty sure there’s a few. The director gets to throw in a dark and stormy night or two and definitely has fun with some creature features in the third act, but for the most part he plumbs the depths of four quadrant action hero movie tropes, throwing so much familiarity against the wall to see what sticks that one wonders if Time Warner did in fact show a bot 100 hours of sci fi/fantasy/comic book movies and made it write the screenplay. Amber Heard dutifully jumps into the pretty-face-who-kicks-ass love interest role, bouncing wannabe sassy one liners off the lead that clunk to the ground often enough to lend further weight to my bot theory. Momoa himself vanquishes powerful aquamen, dastardly pirates and monsters galore, but his greatest foe, the bag he can’t act his way out of, escapes their constant skirmishes unscathed. Patrick Wilson is marginally better as wet evil Legolas than David Thewlis was as secretly ripped evil God in Wonder Woman, so there’s that. Mentioning this sister film could start a dive into the various failings and follies of what the kids know as the DC Extended Universe, but before we drown over in that end of the pool let’s just say everything everyone’s favorite superheroine got right in her origin story movie is a thing Aquaman is stumbling over itself to replicate at every turn. Emphasis on stumbling.
And yet, like that Van Halen album you’re afraid to tell your music snob buddies you love to crank, Aquaman does in fact rock. Momoa is nobody’s Lawrence Olivier II, but the sole reason they cast him—his looking nothing like you remember Aquaman looking like—really does carry the day in most respects, his physicality and swagger dragging us somewhat gleefully through the mayhem. That mayhem is assembled with aplomb by Wan; the fight scenes are smoothly shot with small delights in each (loud, always loud) smash and crash, hinting that his days of mid budgeted demonic possession flicks may be ending as the tentpoles come courting. There’s just enough fun in seeing serious stars like Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman (and yes, the mighty Dolph Lundgren, clearly slumming here) floating around in their CGI costumes that their presence carries us through some painfully stilted exposition scenes. The CG universes developed here, derivative of everything from Avatar to (gulp) The Phantom Menace as they may be, really do make for such a delightful romp through a vast galaxy of eye popping realms that you start to remember DC comics do take fans further into fantasyland than just glum old Gotham City. Has Time Warner’s wannabe superhero megabeast finally started to catch up with, you know, the other studio that prints money off seamlessly integrated franchises? Hell, they didn’t even put out the best comic book movie of the month, and that one came from pretender to the throne Sony. But box office doesn’t lie—people are getting a kick out of it. In other words, despite the running list of deficits this thing racks up over its inevitably bloated runtime, Aquaman is a charmer.