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Musclebound Jason Momoa, Justice League superhero swims alone in Aquaman

Aquaman (PG-13)
Running time 2hr 23min
Rating: **

DC, it seemed, was setting up Aquaman for big things. By now, Jason Momoa’s swashbuckling treatment of this campest of superheroes has had cinematic exposure aplenty, being featured in no less than two films (the risible Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the bland Justice League). This new movie marks his first solo effort, and it does, admittedly, give Momoa a well-deserved opportunity to strut his stuff (he practically rules the film). Regrettably, whereas DC’s multi-character projects felt muddled and overwrought, this more focused entry doesn’t know what to do with all the time freed up in the absence of two or three extra leads – though Momoa’s dynamism occasionally transforms Aquaman into something other than an implausible protagonist, the film mostly plays out like a very, very boring Thor clone. Director James Wan, an established name on the popcorn-friendly horror circuit (Insidious, The Conjuring), might have brought a dark touch to the table; instead, he’s cobbled together something sluggish, stale and desperate, the Hollywood equivalent of a beached whale.

Initially, we get an Aquaman origin story, which makes up the most gratifying stretch of a movie that quickly sinks into briny, monotonous waters. This includes a Philosopher’s Stone-esque sequence where the young Arthur Curry – prior to his becoming a muscly marine geezer – is saved from demonic bullies by an aquarium shark. In a yarn ripped straight from Disney, his mermaid mother (Nicole Kidman) fell in love with a lighthouse-keeping landlubber (Temuera Morrison); she was, regrettably, ripped from him by the vengeful Atlantean authorities, leaving the young Arthur and his father to fend for themselves. The disconnect between this vulnerable kid and the colossal beefcake (fishcake?) we soon encounter is palpable, setting the tone for a plot that’s high on action and shockingly low on consistency, character development and emotional resonance.

Meanwhile, 10,000 leagues under the sea, Arthur’s nefarious half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is plotting war on the Earthlings. To do this, he must enlist the aid of various other underwater polities; this lacklustre, Momoa-less section of the film will no doubt bore audiences to tears, for all its surreal visual poetry (Atlantis looks like a supersized Sea-Monkey tank). One might take a certain pleasure in seeing just who shows up for the ride (Brian Blessed bags an uncredited part as a crab-man; if you’ve ever wondered what Willem Dafoe would look like riding a shark, this is the DC flick for you), but don’t expect the appeal of this freakshow to last Aquaman’s full duration. Arthur’s adventures in the outside world make for a more straightforwardly entertaining watch, though it’s far from a tonally smooth ride. Amber Heard phones in a performance as Aquaman’s mermaid muse – this critic found himself gasping for thrills and motion amid the squishy exposition-fest their story arc is prone to descend into.

The whole thing makes for a trite, banal offering, further confirming the DC Cinematic Universe’s status as Marvel’s awkward, misshapen cousin.

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