'Aquaman' Review: The Best DC Movie in a Decade Still Can't Save DCEU

Not even the King of Atlantis can rescue DC's struggling Extended Universe.

It’s been a decade since DC and Marvel staked out their respective movie kingdoms with two very different films. Robert Downey Jr.’s quippy Iron Man set the stage for 10 years of superhero fun, while The Dark Knight established a gritty tone that subsequent movies keep trying (and failing) to replicate. With Aquaman, DC finally breaks free from that mold to create something distinct from the entire superhero cinematic landscape. Unfortunately for the King of Atlantis, it probably won’t matter. DC has already lost.

It’s no secret that DC’s Extended Universe is in ruins. Batman and Superman may need to be recast, and the most exciting DC movie on the horizon is a Joker origin story that takes place in a totally separate continuity. Depending on how Wonder Woman 1984 turns out, Aquaman may end up being the last great gasp of the DCEU.

The James Wan-directed film almost seems resigned to that fate. It’s a nearly perfect superhero movie that does little to further the larger franchise. Even the Aquaman post-credits scene mostly just offers closure, rather than setting up the next DC movie. That doesn’t mean Aquaman isn’t worth watching (it is!), but don’t expect the kind of universe-building that Marvel has trained us all to view as good cinema.

No matter how you look at it, Aquaman is an impressive film. The action is thrilling, mixing sweeping rooftop chase scenes and close-quarters combat on a sinking submarine with some of the most epic battles ever seen on screen. The final scene puts the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, along with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings franchise, to shame.

It's like The Battle of the Five Armies, but with crab people. And it rocks.

Warner Bros.

The acting is great, too. Jason Momoa delivers a superhero with whom you’d want to drink the proverbial beer (maybe a Sea Monster Imperial Stout) — who’s also cooler than Thor. Meanwhile Patrick Wilson plays a Shakespearean villain who you can almost empathize with until he shows his true colors as a ruthless warmonger. Julie Andrews even lends her voice as a gnarly sea monster, and Nicole Kidman kicks butt as Aquaman’s mom. But perhaps the most impressive cast-member is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a rage-filled breakout performance as the supervillain Black Manta, a submarine pirate who uses Atlantean technology to build a super suit and get revenge on Aquaman.

The CGI is impeccable. Atlantis, in particular, brims with life as a bustling high-tech metropolis. We only get a limited look at the underwater kingdom, but it’s clearly a society and culture distinct (and possibly superior) to our own.

Atlantis may be stunning, but the film really shines when it leaves the ocean. Aquaman and Mera (a fiercely independent Amber Heard with the power to control water) take off on a globe-trotting adventure to find a missing magic MacGuffin trident that sends them to an ancient temple under the Sahara for some Indiana Jones-style exploring. Minutes later they’re racing through Sicily for a high-speed fight scene featuring bad guys in glowing mech suits and laser guns (it feels a bit like what the Power Rangers movie should have been).

Where's all the water, though?

Warner Bros.

Aquaman also manages to inject some much-needed humor into the DC universe. It’s not quippy, but there’s a casual coolness to Momoa’s hero that helps shake off the intensity of the grittier movies that preceded it. In a world of extremes (from Deadpool’s ludicrous comedy to the intense brooding darkness Ben Affleck’s Batman) it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie that manages to do both and succeed.

My only real complaint is the decision to include Aquaman’s origin story (I really thought we were done with those). Throughout the course of the film, we see three different actors (besides Momoa) portray the character at various points in his childhood. These scenes are carefully woven into the rest of the film so they never really drag or feel unnecessary. But in a 2-and-a-half-hour movie, it might have been worth trimming 30 minutes of young Aquaman’s training — even if it meant less screen time for Willem Dafoe.

Teen Aquaman training with Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe).

Warner Bros.

But aside from that one gripe, Aquaman really does feel like the best DC movie in a decade. (Before you even say it, I loved Wonder Woman but the ending was trash and we all know it.) If you’re looking for a great superhero movie this is one of the best. Just don’t expect to leave the theater with a sense of what’s next for Aquaman and the rest of the Justice League. Not even DC knows the answer to that question.

Aquaman dives into theaters on December 21.

Already seen the movie? Check out our spoiler-filled ending analysis here.

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