After surfacing for a cameo teaser appearance in “Batman v Superman” and a proportional slice of the action in “Justice League,” the DC Comics superhero Aquaman (born in 1941) takes center stage, on land and under the sea, in “Aquaman.” The “Game of Thrones” actor Jason Momoa’s great in close-up, surly and charismatic, with eyebrows that suggest all sorts of fun. The director James Wan came up via the “Saw” franchise, but he also has several good films to his credit, “Insidious” and “Furious 7” among them.
This is not one of them.
Already a huge hit in China, “Aquaman” opens Dec. 21 in North America, riding a wave of “yeah, not too bad … kinda fun” praise from various quarters. Reports of its not-badness turn out to be cruelly misleading. Watching this movie is like getting trapped in a Wisconsin Dells waterpark, over a long weekend. Without a bartender in sight.
Watching this movie is like spending two hours and 27 minutes staring at a gigantic aquarium full of digital sea creatures and actors on wires, pretending to swim.
Watching Momoa wield his gleaming trident in battle against his half-brother, Patrick Wilson’s King Orm, or throwing various submarine parts at the vicious high-seas pirate played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, makes you long for the relative visual/spatial clarity of the year’s second-lamest superhero picture, “Avengers: Infinity Wars.”
1. Klutzy screenwriting. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall stumble all over the place trying to set up simple origin-story exposition. It’s not rocket science. It’s a story of how Arthur Curry, the lighthouse keeper’s son, was born to Queen Atlanna of Atlantis, and how he must prevent an apocalyptic surface war waged by Orm and associates, while aquamanning-up to claim a leadership role down where the fishies go.
2. Good director, wrong strategy. Director Wan loads up “Aquaman” with bombastic, horror-inspired jump scares. Why? Elsewhere, the protracted, numbing brutality betrays the hand of executive producer Zack Snyder, who directed both “Justice League” and “Batman v Superman.” And no more need be said about that.
3. The designs. Over in the Marvel Studios realm, “Black Panther” proved a triumph of production, costume, digital and practical design collaboration. Wakanda became a place you wanted to explore. In “Aquaman” the underwater kingdoms look like “Avatar” threw up all over “The Incredible Mister Limpet.”
There’s one effective and rather beautiful series of shots, when our hero dives down, down, down to the Kingdom of the Trench, with deadly beast-fish swarming all around. As Mera the superheroine, Amber Heard dutifully deadpans her way through the torturous romantic banter. She lends a blasé air of early ’50s B-movie cheese to the proceedings. The film’s just sincere enough where it counts — the family stuff, featuring Nicole Kidman as Aquaman’s selfless mom — to float this soggy mediocrity for a global audience.