As the war between the DC and Marvel cinematic ecosystems rages on, one of the stronger players in 2017's fairly ropey Justice League, Jason Momoa's Aquaman, fronts his own picture and brings to the big screen, finally, a character whose arrival has been in gestation for the best part of two decades.
With James Wan the last in a long line of directors at the helm, Aquaman carries all the weight of a tent-pole studio project, the title character's status as a DC staple bringing with it risks as well as rewards.
The results are not pretty. This latest instalment from the increasingly haggard DC Extended Universe takes all the inherently overblown strands of the average comic book adaptation and turns the silliness up to 11. Tonally spasmodic, profoundly dull and peddling in the kind of high-camp melodrama that defines the very best Mexican telenovelas, Aquaman is beyond redemption. Not even the easy charisma of its leading man can save this film from the depths.
Momoa is Arthur Curry, the eponymous superhero's alter ego. Roaming the seas fresh from his world-saving efforts during Justice League – efforts so epic, seemingly, that they warrant just the one passing reference – he is soon mixed up in a dastardly plot hatched by Orm (Patrick Wilson), his evil half-brother (is there any other breed?). Orm, the king of underwater metropolis Atlantis, wants to ally with another underwater bigwig, King Nereus (abarely engaged Dolph Lundgren), and wreck the surface world in retribution for mankind's polluting ways. Or something.
In response, Curry must wrestle with conflicting feelings around his own destiny and the loss of his Atlantean mother (Nicole Kidman), all while cracking wise and kicking ass. Wan throws all of these elements at the screen, all the time, veering wildly between bombastic action, the throwaway comedy beats that are now practically demanded by the genre, and the emotional currents best exemplified by Curry's vaguely defined mummy issues. Even the early scenes extend this hysterical mawkishness to villains the audience has only just met, setting the stage for a dire paint-by-numbers vengeance subplot.
As the obligatory explosion of pricey CGI arrives at the tail end of Aquaman's grinding running time, there is little left to recommend it. The pace never slows, to be fair, but such momentum sacrifices trifling matters like character development and sensible plotting.
Few can escape the carnage. Wilson is a cartoonish antagonist, his preening and roaring offset by the fact that the digital effects have him floating around like a fish in a jar. Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, phones in his warrior-vizier Vulko, whose presence in Curry's uninteresting childhood flashbacks is presented without anything so boring as context. Amber Heard gives it her all as rebellious princess Mera, though her shtick is nothing new.
Momoa, too, is ill served. He may boast a lethal dose of cheeky charm, and demonstrate more of a genuine connection to the subject matter than the rest of his colleagues combined, but the vacillating nature of the film never allows him to grasp at something solid. It's ultimately faint praise to label him the best thing going.
A few arresting visuals (a breaching submarine; a flare-lit plunge through a swarm of sea demons) notwithstanding, the picture's deficiencies are legion. On its finest day, Aquaman's a damp squib.