Opening Friday, Dec. 21

There’s a scene in Aquaman in which a water-powered gizmo is jump-started using perspiration from someone’s brow. That pretty much sums up a film that runs on equal parts flop sweat and seawater. Too silly to be taken seriously, too dour to be campy, the movie is waterlogged with Arthurian pablum, relentless CGI, and a hodgepodge of a soundtrack, and it’s almost two and a half hours long.  

The scion of the beached queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and a Massachusetts lighthouse keeper, Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa) is reared among humans but exhibits superhuman abilities like swimming really fast and communicating with fish. He doesn’t fit in with regular people, and Atlanteans take a dim view of this “half-breed bastard.” As a result, Arthur is a loner who occasionally does good deeds such as saving a hijacked Russian sub from pirates like David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). 

Back in Atlantis, Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), is angling for war against the surface-dwellers who have polluted the seas. The first salvo consists of tidal waves that expel humankind’s garbage back onto land. That’s the last we see of any environmental subtext, though, as Orm spends the rest of the film trying to unite the seven underwater tribes so he can become the Ocean Master and thereby blah, blah, blah.

Atlantean warrior Mera (Amber Heard) recruits Arthur to thwart Orm’s plans by challenging him for the crown. While Arthur feels like a man without a country, Mera and others view him as a possible bridge between two worlds. A reclusive visual fantasia, Atlantis is like a sub-aquatic Wakanda; Aquaman is just Black Panther if Killmonger were the hero and T’Challa were the one hankering for a military crusade. After the brothers duke it out, Arthur and Mera must locate the long-lost Trident of Atlan (fka Excalibur) in a meandering odyssey that takes them to the Sahara, Sicily, and an oasis in the Earth’s core where Arthur confronts a leviathan voiced by … Julie Andrews?!

When the cast isn’t aimlessly drifting from port to port, they’re swimming in a soup of phantasmagoria that’s both intoxicating and exhausting. Director James Wan fashions a sensory assault that relents only after you become acclimated to the neon shimmer. Meanwhile, the plot resembles the levels of a video game, ascending to an inevitable ending. The only emotional resonance comes when Kane returns to avenge the death of his father, donning Atlantean tech and taking on Arthur as the villain Black Manta.

Let’s face it: the most pronounced and promoted visual effects in Aquaman are Momoa’s mane and muscles, and more folks will watch the movie to see his pecs than the pesce. That’s a good thing, as Arthur is otherwise a dullard whose bro personality is forced via faux moxie. “This place kicks ass!” he yells upon entering an ancient chamber buried below the desert. It clearly does not. So it goes in a bloated origin story whose execution clashes with its pretensions. The fate of the world is at stake, accompanied by a drum-playing octopus, jellyfish couture, and Willem Dafoe riding an armored shark.