Jason Momoa’s Aquaman continues to shine in the first solo live-action movie for the 77-year-old character. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

by Brendan Sample

It’s been about five-and-a-half years since the launch of the DC Extended Universe (official name still pending), and this cinematic universe is in an odd position. While most of the five films that have been released have received mixed to negative reception, culminating in an underwhelming box office for last year’s “Justice League,” the DCEU now seems to be shifting its focus toward standalone stories instead of trying to quickly build up a large universe. Time will tell if this approach will curry favor with fans, but if the recently released “Aquaman” is any indicator, these movies appear to be on the right track.

I’m probably one of the few people who has legitimately enjoyed every one of these DC movies that have been released in recent years, and so I jumped at the opportunity to see an early screening of “Aquaman.” After seeing the character’s introduction last year, I’m happy to say that his first solo outing is packed with great action, humor and amazing effects that will likely win over many DC skeptics.

After helping to save the world last year in “Justice League,” Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), has continued to help those in need, but he still mostly wants to be left alone by the world at large. Though his mother was the queen of the lost kingdom of Atlantis, he was raised primarily by his father, a lighthouse keeper. This has kept Aquaman on land without any exposure to his true home.

That all changes, however, when Mera (Amber Heard), an Atlantean princess, informs Arthur that his half-brother and current king of Atlantis, Orm, a.k.a. Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), is planning to declare war on the surface world. Not willing to let billions die, Arthur goes on a quest to embrace not only Atlantis, but also his destiny as the bridge between two worlds.

There’s a lot that I loved here, but the special effects, or computer-generated imagery, were easily the best element of the movie. Though director James Wan set out to use as many practical effects as he could, creating the underwater kingdom of Atlantis was always going to require plenty of CGI, and thankfully that part did not disappoint.

Atlantis was particularly remarkable. The underwater kingdom was beautifully realized, and the same level of detail was also very much noticeable throughout the story. While I can understand any hesitation about accepting this much CGI, especially after “Justice League’s” disastrous cover-up of Henry Cavill’s mustache, this is on an entirely different level and is truly indicative of special effects at their best.

The special effects in “Aquaman” may be some of the best ever in a superhero movie, which makes the film’s snub from the Best Visual Effects Oscar nominations all the more head-scratching. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

I really enjoyed the performances from the cast here, especially in the case of Momoa and Heard. Momoa made a great first impression as Aquaman last year, and he continues to build off of that now that he’s in the spotlight. His Arthur is still very much the fun-loving, hard-drinking spirit we saw in “Justice League,” but he also manages to pick up a newfound sense of responsibility without losing his edge. Heard was also fantastic as Mera, whose ability to control water came in handy under the sea, in the middle of a desert and everywhere in between. She also had some solid chemistry with Momoa, as their banter made for some of the funniest scenes in the film.

Opposite the hero, Wilson definitely impressed as Ocean Master, who, like most great villains, had an understandable motivation. Having spent his entire life underwater, he’s seen firsthand the damage that humans have done to the world’s oceans, and he feels that war with the surface world is the only way to protect his home from complete destruction. Wilson really sold the idea of a dangerously misguided monarch, showing Orm as calm and collected while plotting, and confident and boisterous during battle.

One thing I was a bit concerned about before I saw the film was how it would handle Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Aquaman’s longtime nemesis who appears here as a secondary villain. I was worried that relegating Manta to a subplot would hurt both the character and the overall story. To my surprise, he was effectively worked into the main plot. While he does have his own agenda, his journey here makes sense for the story and managed to give us two fantastic villains.

Another element that stood out to me was the fight sequences. While they’re all well choreographed, several of the scenes utilize a technique where the camera rotates around the action without cutting for an extended period of time. It was just refreshing to see these instances of a blockbuster film not being overly reliant on quick cuts for its action sequences, instead allowing viewers to get a better view of everything that was going on.

One of the things I was most curious about going into the movie was how it was going to handle the longstanding mainstream impression of Aquaman, which has mainly been that he’s a joke of a character. While anyone who has read the comics knows that this has not really been the case, countless jokes and comedy sketches since the days of “Super Friends” have told many people otherwise. This is really the first time that mainstream audiences are seeing the amazing potential Aquaman has, and while it would have been easy for Wan to go the route of constantly bringing up how he’s been seen as a joke only to blatantly go against that claim, the film really doesn’t beat its audience over the head with that. This was something I really appreciated, as it instead opted for a more subtle approach to subverting such expectations.

Patrick Wilson gives a standout performance as Orm, Aquaman’s half-brother and king of Atlantis, though sometimes he can be a little too over-the-top. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the film, there are a few aspects I could certainly understand other moviegoers legitimately disliking. The plot, while not terrible, is pretty straightforward, and we’ve certainly seen this kind of story before: A reluctant hero is forced to go on an epic journey and embrace his ultimate destiny.

Wilson’s performance can also be a bit too over-the-top at times, especially during the battle scenes in which he’s constantly yelling. Granted, Orm is a warrior king who often fights on the front lines, so it makes sense that he would be pretty intense during a big fight, but the act just got excessive at times.

There’s also a scene in which Arthur and Mera have to find something in the middle of the Sahara Desert, and the music leading up to that scene is Pitbull rapping alongside a cover of Toto’s “Africa.” It’s one thing for this song to just be on the soundtrack, but the rapping and singing just took me out of the moment and felt completely unnecessary. It was easily the worst part of the film, and the only “good” things I can say about it is that none of the characters’ dialogue was interrupted and it was over quickly.

Aside from a few minor issues, however, “Aquaman” is a masterful achievement that manages to brings Arthur Curry to new heights after more than 75 years of existence. Wan absolutely knocks it out of the park with incredibly enjoyable characters, well-executed action and have I mentioned how beautiful Atlantis is here? Even if you’ve become disheartened by the DCEU, I firmly believe that this is a film that can start to win back the skeptics, and is truly an adventure worth taking.

Rating: 9/10

 Brendan Sample can be reached at brendan@chestnuthilllocal.com

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