Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
There’s no denying it, DC has had a tough run building their shared cinematic universe. And while much of the blame must be placed at the feet of the studios—and most directly at their misplaced faith in Zack Snyder—there’s no denying the possibilities are still there. Wonder Woman showed that when done right, both critics and audiences will show up in droves with bucketloads of praise. But it’s no easy task, and relatively speaking, telling the story of an omnipotent savior from the stars or a mighty goddess from Themiscyra is child’s play compared to convincing audiences to care for a dude who talks to fish. I mean, Aquaman has been the comic universe’s punching bag for decades, so much so even Entourage considered making a movie of it the most ridiculous scenario they could place their protagonist in.
So how do you get the world to take the king of the seven seas seriously? Well, first, you bring in Jason Momoa.
I recall first seeing the skinny heartthrob on Baywatch back in the day . . . and I was not impressed. That show was never a repository of great thespian talent, and Momoa seemed to fit right into that mold. But, credit where due, I suspect he started hitting the acting workshops about as hard as the gym, and as his biceps grew so did his talent, enough that by 2011 he blew us all away with his impressive turn as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones—and he didn’t even speak a word of English as the character!
The short-lived role laid the groundwork for the many that followed until someone had the crazy idea that Arthur Curry, the traditionally Aryan half-breed of Atlantis, could be played by a descendant of some of the greatest seafarers in history. It was a tough sell, to be sure, and though introduced briefly in the ignominious Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we didn’t get our first proper look at him until Justice League. The push in that film for a lighter tone meant we saw a rough-and-tumble Arthur with a playful, even immature, sense of humor. It didn’t always work, but it was clear that Momoa had talent, and that in the right hands, the character might be salvageable.
If I was a betting man, I would NOT have put my money on director James Wan to be those hands. While he has created worlds and franchises before, they have been almost exclusively gore-porn horror. How would this guy not only set up the environmental and cultural civilization of Atlantis, but basically set up the entire cinematic structure responsible for bringing it to the screen? No one has ever done an underwater movie of this scale, but the kid from Saw is gonna pull it off? Needless to say, I was skeptical.
The biggest hurdle for me, as I saw it, was how to maintain the physics of being underwater while allowing the actors to perform and the characters to properly interact. Well, the short answer is, you don’t. It’s a comic book film, and the creators seem to have fully embraced that. Justice League attempted a more rational approach by having characters create air-bubble pockets underneath the water in order to speak normally, a clever and satisfying solution. But when you start bringing in dozens, hundreds of characters scattered across the ocean floors that becomes untenable. So audiences are expected to suspend their disbelief in the science and just go with it, which isn’t that much of a stretch if you already accept breathing underwater, super swimming and strength, and water-bending control of H2O itself.
The storyline here isn’t particularly original. Arthur Curry, son of a human lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean queen, must embrace his true self as well as his mantle of power in order to stop a war between the two worlds. Odd as it may seem, it’s nothing we haven’t really seen before. But I always say, good stories are in how they are told. And from that perspective, the movie does an impressive and satisfying job of regaling us.