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MOVIES: Aquaman - Review

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The DC Extended Universe has not been without its flaws - in fact, one could reasonably argue that its failures and disappointments have vastly outnumbers its success stories. But just as 2017's Wonder Woman sought to correct the course after the divisive, critically maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice by narrowly focusing on one of that film's strongest elements, so then does director James Wan latch onto one of the few things that actually worked about last year's Justice League: Jason Momoa's charismatic portrayal of Arthur Curry.

Aquaman takes place sometime after the events of Justice League, which we only learn courtesy of a clumsily delivered bit of dialogue from Amber Heard's underwater princess, Mera, a character who spends much of the film locked in a dead heat with Willem Dafoe's grizzled warrior Vulko to see who can provide the most exposition. Despite playing a major part in the salvation of the planet, Arthur shuns the spotlight, preferring instead to spend his days brooding, drinking excessively and periodically thwarting maritime crimes, such as the attempted hijacking of a Russian submarine.

Meanwhile, a political firestorm brews below the sea as Orm (Patrick Wilson, devouring every bit of scenery in sight) seeks to unite the seven kingdoms and wage war on the humans, whose years of plundering and polluting the waters have finally reached a tipping point. Opposed to genocide - unlike the majority of her race, apparently - Mera begs Arthur to return home to Atlantis, a city he's never known, and take his rightful place atop the throne to prevent the coming battle.

With the premise of a warrior returning from exile to a hidden society full of remarkably advanced technology, wherein the throne will ultimately be decided by physical combat, it's impossible to ignore some of the parallels between Aquaman and another standalone adventure whose central hero first appeared in an ensemble film: February's acclaimed Black Panther. But whereas the latter was heavily influenced by authentic African cultures and customs, Wan's film is unabashedly steeped in pure sci-fi elements, boasting some of the most creative and original character and production designs of the year. 

Atlantis is clearly the center of technological achievement beneath the ocean, with an aesthetic that feels like Guardians of the Galaxy reimagined through the lens of Tron: Legacy, but each of the underwater kingdoms - and their residents - feel unique. From the battle-ready crustaceans of The Brine to the proud and regal Fishermen Kingdom to the grotesque and horrifying creatures that inhabit The Trench, there's a truly impressive level of creativity on display in each of the film's locations. Comic fans will relish the incredible amount of detail and the numerous Easter eggs that litter the landscape, but even non-readers should find plenty of reason to "ooh" and "ahh" at the environments and costumes. 

Aquaman's plot, on the other hand, is overly complicated and full of contrivances, but still boils down to typical origin story fare, with the brash and reluctant hero forced to confront his doubts and fears to become who he's meant to be. It's nothing we haven't seen before, and by the time Wan throws in some tomb raiding, a powerful ancient relic, a completely inauthentic romance and a secondary villain who exists almost solely to fuel the second act's major action sequence, we're left with a bloated 143-minute running time that threatens to derail the entire experience.

It's Momoa that proves to be the film's saving grace, building off the charm he showcased in Justice League and proving his viability as a leading man, even while delivering such ham-fisted one-liners as "permission to come aboard?" while infiltrating a besieged vessel. Momoa even manages to remain stoic when faced with a challenge known as the Ring of Fire, which immediately conjures memories of a certain rite of passage in Finding Nemo - that Willem Dafoe's character appears in both scenes is damn near mind-boggling, but also kind of perfect.

Chock full of weirdness that includes an octopus pounding war drums, Nicole Kidman windmill-kicking her way through a squad of amphibious guards, and a villain who demands (without a trace of irony) to be addresses as "Oceanmaster," Aquaman really shouldn't work. And yet somehow, Wan manages to pull it off, creating a film that not only refuses to apologize for adhering to its roots, but fully embraces the inherent absurdity that comes from trying to bring these characters to life in a realistic setting. There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments, but they're outshined by the endless visual splendor and a fully committed performance from Momoa, cementing himself as a bona fide action star and chalking up another win for the DCEU. 

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