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Aquaman

Year: 2018
Production Co: DC
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: James Wan
Producer: Rob Cowan/Peter Safran
Writer: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick/Will Beall/Geoff Johns/James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lundgren, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Randall Park, leigh Whannell, Julie Andrews, John Rhys-Davies, Djimon Hounsou

Like Patty Jenkins doing Wonder Woman before him, and under the no doubt watchful eyes of DC and Warner Bros, James Wan has been extremely careful to avoid any of the dour mood that infected (and, for many, spoiled) Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Justice League.

Like the wheeling, videogame inspired graphics of the vast undersea world of Atlantis and its various tribes, it's fizzy and frothy, bursting with bright colour and a lot of movement, and swings the blockbuster pendulum further toward the sense of freewheeling fun it's been away pointing from for so many years now.

The introductory scenes make great use of the VFX industry De-Age-I-Fier, giving us 20something Temuera Morrison as a lighthouse keeper who rescues the stricken Queen of Atlantis, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) when she washes up on the stormy shore near his home.

On the run from her undersea kingdom for refusing to enter an arranged marriage, Atlanna thinks she's well hidden while Tom nurses her back to health. The pair fall in love and eventually have a son, Arthur, but the good times can't last and Atlantean soldiers eventually find Atlanna. After deposing them in classic take-down-a-rom-full-of-goons style, Atlanna tells Tom she can't stay, that they'll always find her.

Years later, the grown Arthur (Jason Momoa, whose rise to this level of stardom feels like it's taken forever after all the straight to VOD thrillers I've seen him in) is aware of his special powers to breathe and talk underwater and swim at great speed, but he's rejected the kingdom of Atlantis even though he's next in line for the throne, choosing instead to live the life of a vagabond with his salt of the Earth dad – drinking heavily, carousing merrily and doing the odd spot of rescuing, like when bloodthirsty pirates infiltrate a Russian submarine.

It's an arrival moment on a par with Wonder Woman's charge across the WWI No Man's Land as Arthur clangs through the hatch to the floor of the sub, throws his dripping sandy blonde Hawaiian locks over his enormous tattooed shoulders, smiles cheekily over his shoulder and drawls 'permission to come aboard?'

It's also a mission statement for the whole movie – a quippy, funny, colourful love affair with blistering fight scenes and glitzy, day-glo action and enough of a hero's journey plot to hold it all together.

Even after being trained by the former King's dedicated right hand man Vulko (Willem Dafoe), which we see in flashbacks, Arthur refuses to acknowledge the civilisation that drove his mother out, and his half brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) decides to unite the undersea tribes by claiming the throne himself and declaring himself a kind of gilled Fuhrer.

He intends to start a war against the surface world to restore Atlantis to its former glory, and it's up to Arthur to stop it. He'll need some convincing though, and it comes in the shape of Mera (Amber Heard), whose father (Dolph Lundgren) is the leader of another undersea kingdom and who risks being cast out of Atlantis altogether if she's caught helping Arthur, with Vulko as her secret co-conspirator.

From there the story is ironically simplistic and overly complicated at the same time. Some motifs like the monstrous creatures that live around the approach to a vast ocean world in the centre of the planet make sense, but by the time Orm was starting a fight against a race of crab creatures I was hard pressed to remember how it all slotted together.

You can also feel the seams bursting to fit all the franchise front-loading going on – one of the pirates from the opening sub rescue (Yahya Abdul-Mateen) is holding a grudge against Arthur and restyles himself as the villain Manta Ray, using Atlantean technology secretly delivered by Orm to try to goad Arthur into the fight.

We see a cursory scene of him fashioning his armour, then he pops up again long enough for a battle set piece in a picturesque Sicilian town while Arthur and Mera are on the trail of the Macguffin they need, then he's gone just as quickly.

Special mention should be made of the direction by Wan. For movies that should be staggeringly visual, most of the imagery in these spandex blockbusters is increasingly boring and homogenised no matter how many cameras wheel through virtual VFX rendered environments.

But shots like the dive down through the water with a lit flare while hordes of fish monsters give chase, or the Manta Ray's minion crashing through walls and buildings after Mera in a single shot are the work of a director of rare talent.

The Atlantean getups look frankly ridiculous, and both Dafoe and Wilson (was there ever a face you expected to see in a superhero movie any less?) look more than a little uncomfortable with their manbuns and silly, Loki-esque horns and helmets. If you need reminding this is a Saturday morning cartoon writ large, it's never far away.

But the gags and the action are frequent and well-made enough to keep you distracted from it being just another superhero movie that's too loud, too colourful and designed more to shift licensed products than represent art. To the extent you care, it's also heartening to see DC gets further back on track.

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