WASHINGTON — It remains head scratching why the DC Extended Universe decided to introduce a bunch of new characters in “Justice League” and roll out their origin stories after the fact, rather than set up the origin stories first to bring them all together like Marvel.
Be that as it may, we now get “Aquaman,” a “sea-quel” that will likely please fans of the comics, while non-fans will be ready to come up for air. The waterlogged flick packs plenty of nods to comic-book iconography but lacks the script structure for less-familiar audiences.
The story opens with underwater queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washing up on the shore of a Maine lighthouse, where Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) scoops her out of the water, dries her off and falls in love (i.e. “Vertigo”). The inter-species romance births a son, Arthur (Jason Mamoa), who learns he’s a half human, half-fish heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.
Let’s start with the positives. Lead actor Jason Mamoa is far more charismatic than you might expect after seeing his strong-but-silent Khal Drago in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (2011). It’s nice to see a different, charming side to his persona, cracking jokes at his own expense. All the while, his bearded, jacked physique looks like WWE superstar Roman Reigns, allowing us to believe that he is actually capable of pulling off the various feats of superhuman strength.
Meanwhile, Amber Heard’s red-hair-green-suit combo looks like Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy from “Batman & Robin” (1997), while Nicole Kidman makes her first return to the superhero genre since “Batman Forever” (1995). The former plays the hydrokinetic love interest Mera, while the latter recalls Daryl Hannah in “Splash” (1984) before kicking ass in Tom’s living room.
Kidman’s opening fight sequence is the first flashy stroke by director James Wan (“Saw,” The Conjuring,” “Furious 7”), who pushes in for giant close-ups to wailing guitars, a fun trick from “Wonder Woman” (2017). Unlike Patty Jenkins, however, it doesn’t feel like we’re watching the cinematic realism of carefully storyboarded comic book panels in motion; rather, we get an overhead shot with CGI-enhanced moves that look like the digital creations of a video game.
As for the script, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“Orphan”) and Will Beall (“Gangster Squad”) pack a lot into 2 1/2 hours, moving from kingdom to kingdom with lower-third text explaining each new location. It works for a while, picking up Indiana Jones-style clues from the Sahara Desert to Sicily, until Arthur lifts the Trident of Atlan like Excalibur during a showdown with the mythical leviathan Karathen. By the time amphibious monsters known as The Trench chase our heroes up onto an island, you’ll snicker at the increasingly forced inclusion of lands.
The structure is scattershot. After opening with the lighthouse backstory of Arthur’s parents, we jarringly jump ahead to Adult Arthur, rather than chronologically watching his childhood. These formative years aren’t necessary in most films, but we crave them in a superhero origin story to set the rules of magic. Instead, we intercut the A-story with rushed flashbacks where mentor Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe) trains Arthur in his superpowers, far less satisfying than watching Bruce Wayne growing into his abilities under Ra’s al Ghul in “Batman Begins” (2005).
We can understand why the writers are tempted to jump around in the timeline. Their goal is to squeeze in a submarine action sequence to introduce the villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). However, this character arc is abandoned when Manta disappears for the entire second half. Yes, he returns in a post-credit teaser, but that’s a cop-out. If it’s not in the actual meat of the movie, it doesn’t count, leaving the entire script structure thrown out of whack.
As a result, the second half shifts focus to Arthur’s half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who becomes the supervillain Ocean Master in a giant underwater war that’s visually busy and audibly hard to hear the dialogue. The highlight comes when Aquaman and Ocean Master climatically surface for final fisticuffs, but even this is disappointingly stopped by “deus ex machina” as a figure miraculously appears to ensure Orm never receives his comeuppance.
It’s a sunken finish to a mostly buoyant ride. Comic-book fans will find it entertaining enough to stay afloat, non-fans will start drowning and the rest of us will be tired from treading water.