by Anthony Glassman
When is an origin film not an origin film? When it’s done right, for a change.
One of the biggest downfalls of superhero movies is spending two hours (give or take) setting up the hero as the hero, taking her from childhood to adulthood, finding powers, making enemies, blah blah blah, before the big climactic battle in the last ten minutes. It’s boring, dull, done-to-death, and the bane of my existence.
Some characters, like Superman, Batman ,and Spider-Man, simply do not need their origins retold. Alien orphan, orphan with a chiroptera fetish, orphan bitten by radioactive spider. There ya go. ‘Nuff said, as the late Stan Lee used to write incessantly.
Somehow, though, we’re still being deluged with origin flicks. The lamented Green Lantern movie took a space cop with a magic ring and had him spend most of the movie ON EARTH, making goo-goo eyes at the actor’s real-life wife, instead of out in space playing with CGI aliens. And Warner Bros. wondered why it flopped.
I have long posited that ten minutes of exposition at the beginning of the film, followed by some cut-scenes later on, could put into about 20 minutes what the “origin film” wastes its two hours on. And thankfully, James Wan heard me through his aquatic telepathy and answered my prayers in Aquaman. Well, most of them. There was no full-on Jason Momoa nudity, but at least he spent a goodly portion of the film shirtless.
Yes, following the ancient customs of my people, I went to the theater on Christmas Day and saw Aquaman, and found a cotton candy-colored wonderland of Warner Bros. remembering that DC Comics are supposed to be fun and not extended reasons to slit one’s wrists. And yes, I’m looking at you, Man of Steel.
So, at the beginning of the film we get Arthur Curry’s backstory: Mommy was Queen of Atlantis who ran away from an arranged marriage to Tom Cruise…no, that’s not right, although Nicole Kidman plays Atlanna, and ran away from an arranged marriage, landing on the rocks outside the lighthouse where Jango Fett lives. They have a little baby, and he grows up to marry Lisa Bonet.
The film also gives us the origins of Arthur’s arch-enemies, his half-brother Orm and the nefarious Black Manta, a pirate with a grudge because Arthur shot his parents in the alley behind a movie theater. Or something. Aquaman gets the blame for Manta’s daddy’s death, because pirates are never at fault when they die.
Dolph Lundgren (swoon, even at 60 years old) plays King Nereus, the father of Arthur’s love interest Mera and the king of neighboring underwater kingdom Xebel. Willem Dafoe (yikes) actually plays a good guy for a change, Arthur’s childhood mentor Vulko, who is trying to keep Orm from becoming the Ocean Master and going to war on the surface world. Huh. Dafoe as a good guy. Dafuq?
Wan wanted to try his hand at world-building, and he succeeded. Atlantis and its sister kingdoms look fantastic, and there is a strong scaffolding of practical effects under the digital magic. He put out a DC Comics movie that was actually fun (probably more fun than Wonder Woman, although not as good a film), and, most importantly, he cemented Momoa as Aquaman before Marvel could think about casting him as Namor, the Sub-Mariner, essentially the same character but who looks (in the comics) more like Jason Momoa than Aquaman (who is traditionally blond) does.
It’s not a classic. It will not go down in the annals of film history with the Tim Burton Batman films, but it’s a far brighter film than most of what the DC Universe has given us thus far, and a step towards coming in a more solid second to Marvel’s output.
And it has Jason Momoa. Shirtless. A lot. And Amber Heard (ho-hum) who played Mera, the putative love interest and bad-ass superhero deserving of her own origin story.