When I was a kid, I almost drowned in a wave pool.
No, really. I was at the local water park with the kid next door and his mom, who spent the afternoon roasting in a cheap lawn chair while her son and I ran roughshod over concrete decks, up and down AstroTurf-covered stairwells. We'd decided to take it easy for a while, to kick back in the park's gigantic wave pool, and thirty minutes later I decided I'd had enough. I wanted a break from those relentless swells, maybe a snack, and when I tried climbing my way out of the pool and up onto the deck, I was knocked straight down into the water. A second attempt proved just as fruitless, and then a third. Whatever I tried, I always ended up back at the bottom of the ladder thanks to those endless, indifferent waves. It wasn't long before I resigned myself to the whole thing, and felt an eerie calm wash over me as I recognized that this might really be the end. I was maybe 10 years old. I was fine with all of this. Fuck it. Moments later, a lifeguard blew his whistle and yanked me to safety.
I hadn't thought about that experience in years, but I thought about it repeatedly while watching James Wan's Aquaman, a film which may be completely impervious to considered opinions or the very concepts of "Good" and "Bad". Here is a film so over-the-top ridiculous, so indifferent to whether or not you're keeping up with its truly bizarre mythology and sometimes inspired, sometimes tortured plot machinations, that it leaves viewers with only two possible choices: go along for the ride, or get yanked down into the undertow. It is just as relentless, as bludgeoning, as single-minded in its desire to serve its purpose as the wave pool that almost snuffed me out all those years ago.
I don't know if I liked Aquaman, but goddamnit, I respect it.
Aquaman tells the story of Arthur (Jason Momoa), a half-breed roustabout whose ancestry is split between the world of the humans and the Atlantians who live just off their shores. It's a story about a kid without a country who becomes a man without a country, and then one day Mera (Amber Heard) shows up and tells him his presence is requested way down below. Humankind has launched an attack on the underwater kingdoms, and Orm (Patrick Wilson, playing strongly against type) has decided to use the opportunity to seize control of...well, basically everything that isn't on land. Obviously, this is an extremely un-chill move, and only Arthur has what it takes to go on an elaborate, sometimes tedious adventure which will ultimately culminate in the kicking of Orm's ass and the restoration of peace. Along the way, sharks shoot frickin' laser beams out of their heads and Willem Dafoe shows up to teach Arthur how to make force fields out of water. Also there's a Kraken.
I'm not gonna stand here and tell lies about how I "understood everything that happened" in Aquaman or that I was "always sure why so-and-so was doing such-and-such thing" at any given time. But then, I also feel that the movie doesn't care, that it's marching to the beat of its own drum and swinging for the fences (in legitimately spectacular fashion) whenever it feels like it, which turns out to be every five minutes or so. That's admirable, and the amount of worldbuilding and lore-crafting on display in this movie is staggering; new creatures, locations, and hi-tech doodads are introduced on the regular, and just when you think you've got your head wrapped around what's going on, an army of lobster people show up, or a massive alien ship (like something out of the end of The Abyss) breaks through the surface of the ocean so that two impossibly attractive actors can punch each other atop its hull. Why are they fighting? Who made that armor? Did that motherfucker have a gun that shoots lasers made out of water? You're already asking too many questions.
It's evident that Warner Bros. really let Wan go bananas on this thing. It's undeniable. There's a palpable sense of glee to Aquaman, the feeling that the entire film is trying to one-up itself from scene to scene. Everything starts silly (with a sequence wherein Momoa's smoldering gaze is punctuated not once, not twice, but thrice with an electric guitar riff) and only escalates from there, winding its way through a story involving multiple villains, a dozen exotic locations, swashbuckling adventure, hard-won victories, heartbreaking betrayals, arena combat, and - in the film's final stretch - a go-for-broke battle on the ocean floor involving thousands of soldiers riding on sharks and armored seahorses while a skyscraper-sized lava crab destroys everything in its path. The cumulative effect of all this is, admittedly, more exhausting than it is entertaining, but I defy anyone not to be wowed by the spectacle of it all.
In the titular role, Jason Momoa appears capable of acting in only one gear. In that regard, he is matched by Amber Heard, who is rarely convincing in her role as Mera. Other actors (like Dafoe, Wilson and Nicole Kidman, who plays Aquaman's mom) fare far better with the insane, borderline-Shakespearean melodrama they've been asked to convey, but - like everything else in Aquaman - the quality of the performances almost seems irrelevant. Same goes for the screenplay, which veers wildly between exposition dumps, Tender Moments, and some of the clunkiest tough-guy talk I've heard since W was in office. Again, and at the risk of repeating myself: the film seems aware of all this, but also seems to give two blue shits about it, one way or another. "There's a job to be done," says Aquaman, "And these are the tools I have to get the job done. Get the fuck out of my way and let's get on with it."
As for where this film falls on the DCU scale: it's hard to say. With a gun to my head, I couldn't tell you whether Aquaman is a good movie. I do know that I had a better time watching it than I did Batman V. Superman or Justice League (the baffling events of which earn a nod via a single line of dialogue), and definitely more than I felt watching the odious Suicide Squad. Its world-building almost certainly exceeds that of Wonder Woman's, but I was far less invested in Aquaman's characters. But like that Patty Jenkins film, Aquaman feels like Wan moving the DCU goalposts further towards the big, fun, comic book-y tones that have proven so successful for Marvel Studios. It's still not operating on the level of those movies, but it's another step in the right direction, a fantastic display of Big Trident Energy that's more than happy to attempt beating you into submission. You will navigate its waters, or you will drown.