We learn in “Aquaman” that the amphibious superhero is the product of a brief but passionate romance between a lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), queen of Atlantis, who came ashore during a period of rebellion and horniness. She had to return to the sea, though, and that sad occasion led her to an observation about crying on land versus crying underwater: “Where I come from, the sea carries your tears away.”
Such is the poetry of “Aquaman,” directed with colorful enthusiasm by James Wan (“Insidious,” “The Conjuring”) but written, by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“Red Riding Hood”) and Will Beall (“Gangster Squad”), as if under the assumption no one would hear the dialogue anyway. Like the title character, the movie is nice to look but does itself a disservice by speaking.
Some 30 years after his sea-mom returned to her moist kingdom, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is a rowdy, beer-chugging galoot with super strength, the ability to breathe underwater, and a psychic connection to fish that isn’t yet fully developed. He’s been performing rescue missions in the Atlantic on the down-low, giving rise to legends about “the aquaman” but as yet no hard news (there’s no Lois Lane on the case). Told that his mother was executed when she returned to Atlantis, Arthur has no interest in visiting the place, but he accepted occasional training visits while he was growing up from Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Mom’s trusted adviser. Now word comes that Atlantis needs its “half-breed bastard” (they are very judgmental down there) to seize control from his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who has HAD IT with surface-dwellers polluting the oceans and wants to start a war with us.
Arthur is reluctant but eventually recruited by Mera (Amber Heard), an Atlantean warrior princess with the power to control water (and, in one scene, wine). Before he can barge into Atlantis and challenge Orm, though, he must find the legendary Trident of Atlan, a map to which can only be found by first going to the Sahara Desert and following the instructions there to another location, which turns out to be Sicily, where Arthur and Mera have a highly enjoyable (and not terribly destructive, by superhero movie standards) battle and chase with soldiers sent by Orm. That team is led by David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), aka Black Manta, a pirate who blames Aquaman for his father’s death — which, to be fair, Aquaman absolutely caused — and has been given Atlantean weapons to help him kill Arthur.
James Wan’s movies haven’t all been great, but they always show an eye for arresting visuals and nifty camerawork (aided by technology when he wants to do something a camera can’t physically do). He has plenty to work with here; the many corners of the undersea world are full of fascinating beasts, including seahorses and sharks outfitted as war animals, not to mention the Atlanteans’ war machines that are built to look like sea creatures. (Why don’t we do this? Why aren’t our tanks shaped like dogs?) There are some skirmishes among the factions when King Orm has to get everybody onboard with his kill-the-surface-dwellers plan, and while the politics aren’t compelling — it’s a king we don’t like fighting with sea-people we don’t know — the battles are fun to watch.
As for the Aqua-bro himself, Momoa’s performance as a grinning, dopey, fist-bumping, stringy-haired beef slab is growing on me as a counter to the usual crop of superheroes, who tend to be more thoughtful and circumspect and wear shirts. He’s a likable ox, and the character experiences growth over the course of the film that Momoa conveys well.
That screenplay, though. The dialogue is functional at best, seldom witty; the movie isn’t serious, but it’s never particularly funny, either. There’s too much stuffed into the story (the Black Manta subplot could go), though at least the scenes of young Arthur being trained by Vulko are presented as flashbacks rather front-loading the movie with them. But as clunky and dour as most of the DC comic book movies have been, anything that’s light and not insultingly stupid is an improvement. Will there be more? As Aquaman would say, “YEEEAAAHHHH!”
B- (2 hrs., 23 min.; )