When it comes to movies in the DC universe, you never know quite what you're doing to get. "Aquaman" raised all sorts of red flags that it might have been another wretched goof in the vein of "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice."
Luckily for fans, it's much closer to the surprise success that "Wonder Woman" was.
Credit director James Wan and his dynamic star, Jason Momoa, for lending authority and panache to weak source material. It was a crafty trick indeed to transform the concept of Aquaman from goofball to badass.
Its hero is one of the most ludicrous and laughable in all of superhero comic books. A protagonist whose powers involved talking to sea creatures and only proves to be useful when underwater sets himself up for all sorts of atomic wedgie-level mockery among others in the spandex-and-capes set.
But with Momoa, who gained fame as Khal Drogo in "Game of Thrones," Aquaman is more UFC fighter than water polo captain. Mixing his imposing physical presence with ample humor in the mold of Dwayne Johnson, Momoa fuels the film with exuberance and adrenaline. Saucy and sassy costar Amber Heard matches and reflects his energy every step of the way.
Wan, a maestro of atmospheric horror known for "The Conjuring" franchise, pulls off an even trickier audio/visual feat by managing to make the film's numerous underwater sequences seem something approaching plausible. Subtle cues drive home the sensation of submersion without slowing down the action or muddying up the visuals.
Ludicrous motifs still abound, and Wan leans into the absurd aspects of Aquaman's Atlantis digs rather than adding too much grit. We've got overgrown molluscs speaking in stern British accents, a bongo-playing octopus and an army of bridled, humongous seahorses.
The flashback-laden origin story hops between Aquaman's precocious palling-around-with-sharks-and-dolphins boyhood, training montage teen years and pre-hero adult period when he ventured the world as a pirate.
Aquaman reluctantly heeds the call of undersea princess Mera (Heard) to put a stop to his Atlantean fascist half-brother Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson). In the grand tradition of plots ripped from video games and amusement park rides,
Aquaman retreats from an early, failed encounter to quest through several distinct worlds, with the endgame idea to be confront Ocean Master in a maelstrom-level movie-finale boss battle.
Subtlety is not the film's strong point. There are plenty of groan-inducing moments, but the lighthearted, easygoing humor and breezy action keeps things from getting too self-serious. When the film is making fun of itself, you feel like you're in on the gag rather than being inclined to distance yourself in mockery.
"Aquaman" is just plain fun, and manages to establish the franchise as a solid pillar to stand alongside Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. If next year's "Shazam" can follow suit, DC films may start to stand up to the Marvel tide.
RATING: 3 stars out of 4.