The first we see of Aquaman in the eponymous film’s present day, he’s answering a distress call from a nuclear submarine that has just been attacked by pirates. The character’s entrance is a lot of things—subtle isn’t one of them. He uses his brute, superhuman force to carry the vessel over his shoulders until it breaks the ocean’s surface, then he kicks open its top hatch. Jumping inside the sub, flipping his hair, and turning toward his overmatched assailants, a shirtless Aquaman asks, “Permission to come aboard?” Then a rockin’ guitar riff plays.
It’s a fun, cheesy encapsulation of the Aquaman that director James Wan wants to convey in his film. Unlike the other male superheroes who’ve been given solo movies in the tonal clusterfuck that is the DC Extended Universe, Aquaman—real name Arthur Curry—is no brooding, morally conflicted, eternally tortured man expunging his internal demons through fighting crime. (For starters, his mother’s name isn’t Martha.) Aquaman is a self-aware, slightly arrogant badass who’s apparently stolen Lenny Kravitz’s jeans; he doesn’t wear a shirt, because why would you ever with abs like that? And he flips his hair enough that you might assume his flowing locks are insured by L’Oréal, because he’s worth it.
This iteration of Aquaman is a natural extension of the larger-than-life man portraying him, Jason Momoa, who once auditioned for his role as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones by doing the Haka. (Think of the actor as the edgier, occasionally problematic version of Dwayne Johnson, wherein his chiseled physique is a personality trait in and of itself, who’s also married to Lisa Bonet.) When Momoa’s character is contrasted with the Aquaman popularized in the animated series from the late ’60s, it comes across as quite “you versus the guy she told you not to worry about.” That is, in fact, a recurring bit Momoa participates in with couples (read: potential swingers) who take photos with him at conventions.
This isn’t a complaint. It’s refreshing, frankly, and seems like a feature-length edition of his ebullient “MY MAN!” moment from the otherwise underwhelming Justice League. The closest Aquaman approximation in the modern superhero canon is probably Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, once the Marvel Cinematic Universe took off the shackles and leaned into the actor’s inherent comedic talents in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War. Arthur Curry is an aqua-bro with a heart of gold, the kind of hero you’d love to just chill and grab a beer with at a dive bar (pun unintended) rather than one who’s on a self-serious mission to save the world.
Of course, Aquaman couldn’t solely coast on the hero’s bro-y charms: The protagonist has to have some conflict driving him. The crux of the film is a familiar one: Aquaman is, as the movie repeatedly insists, the “bridge between land and sea,” the result of his parents being a lighthouse-keeper in Maine and the queen of Atlantis. And while the current king of Atlantis, his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), wants to wipe out the surface-dwelling humans for continually polluting the ocean, Arthur could unite the two worlds. The problem is—and again, stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Aquaman doesn’t feel like he belongs to either of them. He’s wandering, like a ship without a lighthouse trying to find the coast in a thunderstorm.
Aquaman doesn’t consider himself a leader for anyone, and in the little we saw of him ahead of his solo film debut, he didn’t exude traditional leadership qualities. Remember, he basically got into a bar fight with Ben Affleck’s Batman. But the same things Arthur’s enemies consider his weaknesses—that he’s, essentially, a foreigner to Atlantis and isn’t accustomed to their cultural practices—are in fact his greatest strengths. The Atlanteans adhere to some archaic practices, including underwater gladiator fights to the death and exiling citizens to the Kingdom of the Trench, a place where ravenous monsters tear people limb from limb. They could use a bit of modernity, a bit of empathy, and most of all, a bit more fun. They need Aquaman as much as Aquaman needs them.
The semi-reluctant hero is a familiar trope in superhero narratives, to be sure, but it’s never been as boisterous and charming as the man who can talk to fish and can drink everyone except his lighthouse-keeper father under the table. Is Aquaman the greatest actual hero in the DCEU? Probably not [Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme suddenly starts playing]. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone you’d rather spend your time with. Cue rockin’ guitar riff.