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A lot of ink has been spilled over the last 10-plus years about the way superhero movies have grown to dominate the big-budget film business, like some amorphous comic-book blob subsuming every other genre. For Western fans we have superhero Westerns; for sci-fi fans we have superhero sci-fis; for serious war drama fans we have serious superhero war dramas. I’m really waiting for someone to nail the superhero romantic comedy.
Enter Aquaman, the latest contender to arise from the DC universe, who offers something that suddenly seems revolutionary—a superhero movie for … comic book fans.
Nearly every exaggerated, Day-Glo frame feels like it was pulled from a hand-drawn panel. You can practically see the words BLAM! and POW! hovering over the fight scenes. And it’s not just in the visual department that Aquaman feels tailor-made for folks who could be extras in an episode of The Big Bang Theory. From the vague mythic references to the bizarre crustacean tribesmen to the bonkers backstory, this is a movie built to be beloved by people who are thrilled whenever Excaliber or Clash of the Titans pops up on the channel guide. That is, us old-school geeks.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t offer some fun for normal people as well.
It’s clear that after all the grimness of Batman v Superman and Justice League, Warner Bros. finally learned from Marvel that unless your name is Christopher Nolan you can only take a guy wearing a cape so seriously, and in this case we’re essentially talking about a fish-man. Why wouldn’t you have some fun with that? Actor Jason Momoa certainly does.
Momoa possesses the same talent as Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in being able to utter a bad pun with a wink that makes the campiness feel like a feature instead of a bug. Is a lot of the dialogue terrible? Definitely. But it’s also maybe meant to be. Or so Momoa’s grin suggests.
When he’s not punishing pirates on the high seas, Aquaman lives a low-key life as beach bum Arthur Curry. If Arthur’s language and beer drinking make him a dubious role model (and parents should note that the PG-13 rating includes a bit of both as well as some monsterlike sea creatures), his lack of interest in self-promotion is refreshing. Remember the good old days of alter egos instead of just egos? Also a nice throwback: Tanned and brawny as he is, we don’t have to sit through any displays of Aquaman’s prowess with the ladies until his love interest strides ashore begging him to stop his half brother from waging war on the land-dwellers. It’s also clear his parents were good role models in fidelity.
Because it doesn’t make as many concessions to mainstream appeal, there’s a healthy number of people who see most of today’s superhero hits that won’t care for Aquaman. And it’s a shame that some of the movie’s excesses, like two battle sequences that are as unnecessary as they are long, drag it down like an anchor. You have to really like watching one muscle-bound meathead pummel another not to get burned out by the end of the 2½-hour run time. The same goes for the main subplot. Even if it does set up the Aquaman sequel, it still should have been thrown overboard to ensure we want to see it.
But even if he’s not as streamlined in the fun department as his studio rivals Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, having an undisciplined, uneven sort of appeal somehow fits Aquaman and feels like a step in the right direction for DC. Maybe after this he can teach his buddies Batman and Superman a little something about hanging loose.