The problem with using Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces as a template for a movie is that you can’t use every one of those heroes; you have to make a choice. Is your hero Hercules or King Arthur?
James Wan’s Aquaman, based on the DC Comics character, plays as though a half-dozen movies were compressed into it. It’s all three Lord of the Rings underwater, with a grand finale giant fish war that’s like the largest tureen of bouillabaisse ever cooked. Plus it’s a Tomb Raider movie, and a “finding your royal destiny” movie. Among these moments, it’s also what it started out being—a superhero movie with the titular good guy battling the terrestrial arch-villain Black Manta, played by the bigly Yahya Abdul-Mateen II wearing a giant football-shaped helmet.
Who is this Aquaman, anyway? Early on, the half-Atlantean, half-human Arthur (played by the unimpeachably massive and likable Jason Momoa) rescues a Russian sub from some sadistic pirates. “Aquaman!” the rescued cry, and the muscly hero greets them in Russian. He’s known at once, a hero who knows all men’s tongues. Why then, at other times, does Arthur the Aquaman appear to be a beer-chugging lunk, too dumb to know Pinocchio was a book before it was a movie?
Despite Arthur’s dislike of his snobby ancestral home, magenta-haired princess Mera (Amber Heard) begs him to come to the lower depths in order to dissuade his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) from coming up here and finishing off every last one of us polluting landlubbers once and for all. Interestingly, Wilson looks a bit like Aquaman from the Silver Age comic books, blonde and bland. In his struggle, Aquaman is helped by his childhood mentor (Willem Dafoe), who himself resembles the watery hero’s across-the-street rival, the Submariner.
Nothing wrong with the production design but, just like when you’re scuba-diving, turbulence interferes with visibility. It’s hard to get a good look at the submerged colossal statues and temples—there is an old-town district in Atlantis, we learn. The citizens ride 20-foot seahorses, champing at their bits. A highlight is an attack of humanoid angler fish with saber teeth. Occasionally, you’re allowed to see the attractions, the iridescent suits of scaly armor with nautilus-shaped shoulder guards and, appropriate to the fishy theme, codpieces. A gigantic octopus beats war drums at a gladiator match, one of the regularly scheduled fight scenes with the digitally simulated battlers seen from all angles of a gyroscopic camera.
As a director, Wan has an unforgivable impatience with romance and contemplative moments. If the old-time directors sometimes fired a starter pistol to get a quick reaction from slowpoke actors, he improves on that by firing a rocket through the middle of any quieter scene.
Incidentally, when Mera and Aquaman arrive in the Sahara, the soundtrack plays Pitbull’s “Ocean to Ocean,” which sample’s Toto’s “Africa.” Could have been worse—remember Donovan’s “Atlantis”?
‘Aquaman’ is playing in wide release in the North Bay.