Growing up, I was never a DC guy. I, of course, liked Superman and Batman because, well, because I’m an American and I think it’s somewhere in the Constitution that, up to at least age 12, you have to love Batman and Superman. Flash is optional.
But mostly I was into Spider-Man and The X-Men. The one non-mandatory DC character that I always dug, however, was Aquaman. He was really cool, with that orange and green outfit and that seahorse he rode. He was big, clean-cut, square-jawed — kind of like Superman, but blond.
I never really read his comics, at least not on a regular basis, but he was a regular on the “Super Friends” cartoon, and I never forgot it. Apparently, I missed a lot of pop culture context with Aquaman, however. Somehow, in the intervening years, he became quite the punchline.
I never watched “Entourage,” but apparently that show is to blame for the Atlantean’s fall from coolness. In the comics, perhaps in retaliation, or perhaps simply due to the changing times, Aquaman got grittier, grimier, meaner. And so, by the time DC Comics got serious about trying to keep up with Marvel with their own cinematic universe, the Aquaman they presented was less a Ken doll with gills, and more an underwater biker from hell. Needless to say, not my Aquaman.
I shouldn’t be too harsh. “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League” were grim slogs, but Jason Momoa’s take on the exiled Atlantean king was the high point for most people. The Hawaiian actor who got his start playing Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones,” and then immediately thereafter Conan the Barbarian, is nothing like most people would have imagined Aquaman to be, but has a visceral style that matched where the D.C. universe was headed.
In order to lighten up “Justice League,” his Arthur Curry was turned into muscle-headed comic relief — kind of a “Come at me, bro” superhero.
Though that’s not really the direction I would have gone with, his solo film is fun and mostly well-made, and basically sets itself apart from the rest of the DC story line by barely even mentioning the events of the other films. This is, without a doubt, an Aquaman movie, not a continuation of a lesser story line.
The story opens with a flashback — telling the tale of how Arthur’s mother and the queen of Atlantis, Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman, fell in love with a lighthouse keeper after she escaped an arranged marriage back home.
Life is good for the couple, for a while. Arthur is born, but when the boy is 3, the couple is discovered by the jilted king’s envoys. In order to keep her son and love safe, Atlanna decides to return to Atlantis, leaving her son in his father’s hands, but sending her councillor, Vulko, played by Willem Dafoe, to train and educate the boy.
Atlanna never returned, and eventually Vulko had to tell Arthur she’d been executed some years before. Forsaking his homeland and his birthright, Arthur instead becomes the patron saint of fishermen and rescuer to those in danger on the water, and eventually a member of the Justice League.
In the present, Arthur finds himself caught up in the political machinations of his half brother Orm (Patrick Wilson looking much more like the traditional Aquaman than Momoa ever does), who is trying to orchestrate a war between the water peoples and the uplanders in retaliation of years of pollution and overfishing.
Orm has a point, but like most misguided idealists in movies, is willing to take the whole thing way too far.
Naturally, it’s up to Arthur to stop him, but to do so, he must reclaim his title as the rightful king of Atlantis. One thing standing in his way, however, is a revenge-seeking pirate named David Hyde who, with the help of a little Atlantean weaponry, has taken on the mantle of Black Manta.
Silly as this movie is at times, there’s no doubt that it’s entertaining and moves at a decent clip.
Momoa’s an interesting guy to watch and is a very physical actor. His chemistry between co-star Amber Heard, as Mera, is fine, but the film never goes for romance.
Where it does go big is on special effects, and particularly in the form of creatures, which is really fun. I’ve been pretty depressed by the direction the DC Universe is going, but with course corrections like “Wonder Woman” and now “Aquaman,” they may have something after all.
I wasn’t expecting to like it, but every once in a while they surprise me. Grade: B+
“Aquaman” is rated PG-13 for mild language and comic book violence.
• By CHRIS JENNESS, Now Playing