‘Aquaman’: The life aquatic with Hawaiian Polynesian Power superhero Jason Momoa

If two hours and 23 minutes of nearly nonstop noisy action, violence, CGI and other eye-popping special effects in a superhero movie is your thing, then you will love the mind-boggling Aquaman. It’s put-your-brain-into-neutral for some mindless entertainment mostly beneath the waves at the Lost Continent of Atlantis, DC Comics and Warner Bros. style. On the other hand, if you prefer character studies, well written dialogue, originality and good stories, go see another film, such as If Beale Street Could Talk or Vice.

At least seven screenwriters share credits (or the blame) for this overblown oceanic epic that is extremely derivative—and not only of a superhero franchise dating back to Aquaman’s 1941 debut during the Golden Age of comics. Indeed, the screen scribbling kleptomaniacs seem to have plagiarized Greek and Roman mythology as far back as Homer’s The Odyssey, as well as Plato, who wrote about Atlantis in Socratic dialogues.

The over-the-top slam-bang plot, such that it is, is confusing and centers on land-raised Arthur Curry’s (Jason Momoa) realization that he is royalty and on his crusade to regain his crown as Aquaman, the rightful ruler of the underwater realm of Atlantis. It’s an old saw, although since Momoa is Hawaiian, and the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in 1893 by U.S. imperialists, this storyline is fraught with symbolism.

The ink-stained wretches who scrawled this misbegotten big-budget bloated mess missed a great opportunity to make an eco-statement, as Moana did about global warming and Noah did about extreme weather. In one Aquaman sequence plastics and other garbage wash up from the depths of the ocean, but what could have been some potent social commentary on pollution is merely mentioned in passing. Imagine if Aquaman led the creatures from the deep in a struggle to stop climate change and pollution! But known for hair-raising, action-packed flicks such as The Conjuring and Furious 7, Australian director James Wan doesn’t seem too keen on intellectual subject matter. What a wasted opportunity to open some popcorn munchers’ peepers via the medium of mass entertainment.

And those repeated references to the born-out-of-wedlock Arthur Curry/Aquaman as a “bastard” and “half-breed” are pretty culturally insensitive.

As a character, Aquaman has been a lesser presence in the comic book cosmos, in and out of being featured in his own comic, as opposed to playing a supporting role, for example in the Justice League of America (and he’s not even American—he’s Atlantean!), which includes two previous movies wherein Momoa played the man whose powers include being able to breathe (and talk!) underwater. In Wizard Magazine’s list of “Top 200 Comic Book Characters,” Aquaman ranks 147th—just ahead of The Daily Planet’s perpetual cub reporter, Jimmy Olsen. In comparison, DC’s Batman and Superman, and Marvel’s Spider-Man all place in the top four.

Furthermore, the onscreen Aquaman bears little resemblance to the clean-cut blond amphibian I grew up with during the Silver Age of comics. Of course, over the decades I do realize that the character has evolved and changed.

Having said all this, the longhaired, bearded, ultra-muscular, tattooed Jason Momoa is a joy to behold. Momoa debuted in the Hawaii iteration of Baywatch and previously appeared in other TV series, including, interestingly, Stargate: Atlantis. The buff action hero starred as the title character in 2011’s Conan the Barbarian, and on HBO’s antediluvian hit Game of Thrones Momoa he depicted Khal Drogo. As Aquaman the nonchalant Momoa performs with great panache and is a hoot to observe. The Hawaiian entertainer is the best thing about Aquaman: He’s not so much an actor as he is a presence, and a highly enjoyable and welcome one at that. He seems to be having good fun, and imparts that lighthearted sensibility to the viewer.

The next best thing is getting to see Momoa’s fellow Polynesian, the Maori actor Temuera Morrison, portray his landlubber lighthouse keeper father, Tom Curry. The Aotearoa/New Zealand-born Temuera was a screen sensation as a domestic abuser in the stellar 1994 drama Once Were Warriors, and he rose in filmdom’s firmament to act in the Star Wars franchise and in another superhero flick, 2011’s Green Lantern. It’s always a delight to see Temuera back on the silver screen.

Nicole Kidman depicts Tom Curry’s lover Atlanna; action star Dolph Lundgren is King Nereus; Amber Heard is Mera; Patrick Wilson is King Orm; Randall Park of TV’s Fresh Off the Boat plays Dr. Stephen Shin; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is the villainous Manta; and Michael Beach of If Beale Street Could Talk is Manta’s father Jesse.

Aquaman’s most astonishing special FX is making Willem Dafoe, who portrays Vulko, look young in some scenes. The funniest special effect in this briny epic is an octopus drummer who is pounding the sharkskins with a drumstick in each of his eight tentacles. Another visual effect is Momoa’s body tattoos, which were enhanced by (presumably) makeup artists (working overtime) to render the inky, Polynesian-style designs ornamenting his powerful physique.

Along with part-Samoan Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Rampage and Skyscraper and part-Hawaiian Keanu Reeves in Siberia and Replicas, Momoa is the third Polynesian star to play leading roles in Hollywood movies this year, marking major milestones for the South Seas Cinema genre. According to Bustle.com, “In an interview with The Daily Beast, the actor said, ‘Aquaman is especially cool because being Kanaka Maoli—being Hawaiian—our gods are Kanaloa and Maui and the Earth is 71 percent water, so I get to represent that’.… Momoa said that his Hawaiian heritage was important to note in his portrayal of the character.” One Aquaman sequence has a beautiful, cinematic visualization of Mana, the Polynesian concept of spiritual power and energy of the universe.

If you buy a ticket to Aquaman, see it for the good-natured, jovial Jason Momoa, and for Temuera Morrison, the best things about this star-studded special FX extravaganza.

Polynesian actor Jason Momoa leads a Maori style haka dance here.

The trailer can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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