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King of the Silly Seas

Aquaman continues a positive trend of films that capture the gleefulness of the 1940s while employing the best of this decade’s special effects.

Jason Momoa stars in a scene from the movie "Aquaman." (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A -III
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Aquaman holds a special place in my heart; it was the first comic book hero I distinctly remember from my earliest childhood. I was attracted to the bright colors, wondrous landscapes, strange underwater creatures, and the title character’s sleek costume.

When the DC cinematic universe kicked off in 2013 with Man of Steel, it seemed to have forgotten (or dismissed) this childlike excitement, instead preferring the dark and somber cynicism of the current age. This more adult tone hurt its first few installments, all of which struggled critically and financially. It finally found its feet with Wonder Woman, a chapter that was significantly brighter and more upbeat.

Aquaman continues this positive trend with a film that captures the gleefulness of the 1940s while employing the best of this decade’s special effects. Thank goodness that the kid from 1991 finally gets to see his hero on the big screen.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), like Hercules or Perseus, is a demigod who is “destined to unite two worlds.” His father was a New England lighthouse keeper; his mother was an Atlantean royal who fled an arranged marriage. Raised by his father but trained secretly in the ways of the sea by a close friend of his mother’s, Arthur becomes the Aquaman who spends his days drinking beer and performing simple acts of heroism, including rescuing a sinking submarine and thwarting a gang of pirates. Yet he is not perfect and early on commits a sin of omission that will come back to haunt him.

One day, Mera (Amber Heard), a princess of a rival subterranean kingdom, comes to him for help. Arthur’s half brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) has claimed rule over Atlantis and is building an alliance to start a war against humanity. Mera insists Arthur challenge Orm for the throne, but they first must find a lost MacGuffin—er, trident that will defeat him.

“What is a hero?” This simple question hangs over nearly every superhuman fantasy, from Superman to Deadpool to Thor. However, it had rarely been addressed in the DCU; but it is ever present in Aquaman. Arthur is hesitant to rise to the occasion. The Atlanteans had killed his mother when they discovered her affair, and he could care less about being king. Mera understands Arthur, but challenges him. “Atlantis has always had a king, but now it needs something more,” she pleads.

“What’s greater than a king?” he wonders. “A hero,” she says plainly. “A king fights for his own, but a hero fights for everyone.”

Being a hero isn’t just about performing good deeds. Rather, it is involves good deeds guided by a worldview that acknowledges the inherent dignity of every person—even one’s enemies. “But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk 6:27).

This time, when Arthur has an opportunity to seek vengeance, he chooses mercy. Echoes of Christology are faint in Aquaman, but they are present.

Yet Aquaman’s narrative is not even its greatest asset. That would be the fantastic world created by director James Wan, production designer Bill Brzeski, and costume designer Kym Barrett. It is a vast universe of sharks, coral, glittering gold, and Leviathan-sized sea monsters worthy of Verne, Lovecraft, and Stevenson. There are both 15th-century mermaid knights riding atop giant seahorses and 27th-century underwater spaceships with lasers, which would seem to be contradictory (or at least paradoxical), but for a picture that’s as much silly fun as Aquaman, it is pitch perfect.

Like the recent Ant-Man and Spider-Man movies, filmmakers are getting wise to the fact that it is better to be entertaining than win Oscars. A comic book movie does not need to be original; it simply needs to be intriguing and create a world we want to explore for a couple of hours. In that regard, Aquaman succeeds swimmingly.

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About Nick Olszyk 208 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".

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