Just like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — the so-called “Big Three” in the DC/Warner corporate toybox — Aquaman is an icon of the superhero genre. But Aquaman’s renown mainly has to do with baggage. He’s a joke. The guy who talks to fish. The team member that “Justice League” comics (and last year’s feature) have to shoehorn into the action.
The upside: “Aquaman,” the new Jason Momoa solo showcase, has leeway to treat its subject as a blank-ish slate. “Justice League” gave us a chance to acclimate to the “Game of Thrones” muscleman’s tall-dark-and-tatted Aquabro interpretation — “Entourage” spoofing come true? — and there’s certainly more where that came from in this outing. But none of the movie’s other, more faithfully translated aspects feel as bold. While Momoa’s Rock-lite swagger is diverting enough, he could also do with some inspired complementary touches. Disappointingly, there isn’t enough of that coming from director James Wan (“Insidious,” “The Conjuring”) and company.
The story casts its outwardly ambivalent hero, a.k.a. Arthur Curry, as an outsider of two worlds, the love child of Atlantis’s runaway queen and a rugged New England lighthouse keeper. (As mer-mom, entertainingly butt-kicking Nicole Kidman sports a spangly bodysuit apparently rescued from Susannah York’s closet on Krypton; as her soulmate, Temuera “Jango Fett” Morrison is less Massachusetts than Maori.) When Aquaman is warned by undersea princess Mera (Ariel-coiffed but otherwise generic Amber Heard) that Atlantis plans to wage war on us landlubbers — battleships and garbage barges first — he grudgingly agrees to act. But how, exactly, will he stop the Atlanteans’ leader, his power-hungry half-brother (Patrick Wilson)?
Wilson’s elitist is seemingly written as a quasi-Aryan despot, but comes off as a prissy blowhard in a blond male up-do. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s tangential, vengeful techno-pirate Black Manta is a more compelling villain, even if he’s a culprit for the film’s overlong running time. Could they have skipped Aquaman and Mera’s head-scratcher trek across the Sahara, maybe?
Not that the movie’s elaborately crafted vision of the deep is everything we might have hoped, some sleekly trippy early images of saddled-up seahorses and sharks notwithstanding. Aquaman’s first glimpse of Atlantis is meant to convey wonder, but mostly there’s a sense of digitally over-busy déjà vu, as we’re reminded of more inventively designed fantasyscapes in “Thor,” “Avatar” and so on.
Wan does more striking work letting his horror chops shine, darkly, in an eerie scene with Aquaman and Mera being swarmed by piranha men. Or humanoid viperfish. Or — oh, to have the ability to communicate with the critters and sort it out. Speaking of which, to the film’s credit, it does legitimize the whole marine-telepathy bit. That element, go figure, goes swimmingly.
Directed by James Wan. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, from a story by Geoff Johns, Wan, and Beall. Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 143 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some language).
Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.