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As Monty Python once put it, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. In Aquaman’s case, the sword is a magic trident and the woman is a sea monster voiced by Julie Andrews, but the point still stands. Maybe it’s time for the kingdom of Atlantis to embrace democracy.
Aquaman is much more fun than Batman v. Superman or Justice League, but in order for the plot to make sense, you have to buy into the divine right of patriarchal monarchy. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) should be king of Atlantis because his bloodline says so, and that’s all there is to it. Never mind that (unlike Black Panther or even Thor) he’s totally unsuited to the task and that Amber Heard’s Princess Mera is clearly a better choice of leader. But perhaps this is too lofty a criticism for a mermaid action movie involving a submarine heist, a bongo-playing octopus, and the unique artistic choice of hiring Pitbull to cover Toto’s “Africa” for the soundtrack.
Best known for horror movies like Insidious, director James Wan also made the seventh Fast and Furious, and he knows what the people want. Here, that involves a hearty balance of Momoa fight scenes, sparkly mermaid warriors riding giant seahorses, and a royal feud ripped straight from a Disney cartoon. Unfortunately, this keeps getting bogged down in unnecessarily laborious exposition, but c’est la vie. With a 143-minute runtime, you’re probably going to need a bathroom break anyway. Just time it for whenever someone starts talking about their parents.
Arthur Curry is the result of an unlikely union between runaway Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and pleasantly chilled-out lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). Gifted with a variety of ocean-related powers including underwater breathing and psychic communication with fish (!), Arthur has been operating as the superhero Aquaman for a while now. Raised in human society, this movie takes him back to his long-lost Atlantean roots. We’re introduced to a vibrant underwater world of high-tech mermaid tribes, with Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) vying to unite them in a war against humankind, seeking vengeance for ocean pollution. Arthur has no interest in getting involved, but Mera is determined to get him on the throne, persuading him to retrieve the Atlantean equivalent of Excalibur and challenge Orm.
At this point, the movie lost me somewhat, because while Aquaman’s plot is basically a dumbed-down rehash of Black Panther, it never makes a convincing argument for Arthur Curry to be in charge. Unlike Black Panther’s T’Challa, a wise and politically astute leader, Arthur is a hothead with plenty of macho charisma but zero administrative experience. He’s arguably a worse choice than Thor, who ended his first movie by admitting he was too immature for high office.
It’s frustratingly obvious that Mera should be queen instead since she’s a big-picture thinker with a deep understanding of Atlantean politics. Not only does Aquaman buy into the idea that women should be the power behind the throne instead of on the throne, but it relies on that annoying trope of accomplished female characters playing second fiddle to less-competent men. Mera and Atlanna repeatedly tell Arthur how wonderful he is, as if “being a good dude” is the only qualification necessary to become emperor of the ocean.
Dubious politics aside, Momoa makes such a great Aquaman that he highlights a key failing of the recent Batman and Superman. Both suffered from a lack of coherent identity, unmoored from familiar characterization. What did Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill bring to those characters? Sometimes it seems like even they didn’t know. But with Aquaman, Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall tailored the character around Momoa. This version of Arthur Curry is different from the corny hero of the comics, not least because he comes from a Polynesian background. Like Robert Downey Jr.‘s Iron Man, Aquaman ties into the actor’s public persona: a sexy, charismatic action hero with a cocky attitude and a faint undertone of dickishness. He’s even cool enough to make you forget the fact that he wears jeans underwater, officially making him a Never Nude.
While this movie is no Wonder Woman, you’re probably going to enjoy yourself. Obviously, your first choice this week should be the brilliant Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but if you have the time and money for two superhero movies, then why the hell not? The action scenes are fun, and Wan avoided the murky visuals of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, leaning into the silliness of the source material. Along with all the sea monsters and flashy action sequences, one of Wan’s smartest moves was hiring costume designer Kym Barrett. She spent years creating iconic looks in Wachowski movies from The Matrix to Jupiter Ascending, and this time she got to run wild with a wardrobe of ostentatious armor and, in Mera’s case, a cartoonishly impractical catsuit and luminous jellyfish gown. A handy visual reminder that while Aquaman takes place in deep water, it’s too shallow to be taken very seriously.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor