JA­SON MO­MOA SWIMS BUT ‘AQUA­MAN’ SINKS

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Su­per­heroes who travel by sea horse never get any re­spect.

Since Paul Nor­ris and Mort Weisinger first dreamed him up in 1941, Aqua­man’s fate has largely been as the Rod­ney Danger­field of DC Comics — a reg­u­lar punch­line for his not-sopo­tent pow­ers. Sure, he can talk un­der­wa­ter and bran­dishes a big fork for weapon. But like Luca Brasi, he sleeps with the fishes.

Yet Aqua­man’s day has fi­nally ar­rived. And if there was one in­spired stroke be­hind the first solo movie for the At­lantis hero, it was in cast­ing Ja­son Mo­moa in the Jus­tice League role, one he be­gun in 2016’s “Bat­man v Su­per­man.” It’s al­most a dare: Try telling this guy your Aqua­man jokes.

In James Wan’s wa­ter­logged, fit­fully en­ter­tain­ing “Aqua­man,” a heavy metal gui­tar riff blares at our first close-up of the long-haired, much-tat­tooed, shirt­less Mo­moa. “Per­mis­sion to come aboard?” he says with a sly, over-the-shoul­der grin.

It’s a wel­come ar­rival. As Mo­moa showed on his re­cent “Satur­day Night Live” host­ing gig, his charisma is as for­mi­da­ble as his brawn. So why is “Aqua­man” so soggy with At­lantis mythol­ogy and drown­ing in spe­cial ef­fects when all it re­ally needs to do is let Mo­moa’s Aqua­man rock?

There are plea­sures in Wan’s ex­trav­a­gant un­der­wa­ter pageant. It’s surely the only movie around where you can en­joy a float­ing Willem Dafoe (as Vulko, royal coun­selor to At­lantis ruler Orm, played by Pa­trick Wil­son), see a glad­i­a­to­rial show­down sounded by an oc­to­pus on drums and, in one of the many scenes where water is weaponized, wit­ness death by Chi­anti, in a tus­sle that tum­bles into a Si­cil­ian wine store.

“Aqua­man” weighs in some­where be­tween the lugubri­ous “Jus­tice League” and the less leaden “Won­der Woman” on the un­even scales of re­cent DC films. To both the movie’s ben­e­fit and detri­ment, the seas here are chop­pier than in the pre­dictably (and some­times bor­ingly) smooth sail­ing of a Marvel movie. But the bright spots (Mo­moa, that oc­to­pus) can be dif­fi­cult to re­ally rel­ish amid the oceans of ex­po­si­tion and a typ­i­cally pul­ver­iz­ing, overe­lab­o­rate screen­play.

A war is brew­ing un­der­wa­ter, but David Les­lie John­son-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script takes a while to get us there. They have ori­gin sto­ries to map out, be­gin­ning with At­lanna, the ban­ished At­lantis princess (Ni­cole Kid­man, a screen god­dess with­out the need to play an aquatic one), wash­ing up on the rocky Maine shores of a light­house keeper (Te­muera Mor­ri­son). They fall in love and have a child named Arthur (our Aqua­man to be) be­fore At­lanna is forced to re­turn to the sea.

As an adult, Arthur — trained by Vulko as a kid — moon­lights as a hero in be­tween hap­py­hour trips to the bar. But he’s re­luc­tantly drawn into a strug­gle for the throne of the seven seas with his younger brother Orm, who’s plot­ting a bat­tle with “sur­face dwellers.” He re­gards Arthur as a “half-breed” not fit for the un­der­wa­ter king­dom he grew up out­side of. The red-haired Xebel princess Mera (Amber Heard), her­self a for­mi­da­ble fighter, joins with Arthur on a glo­be­trot­ting mis­sion to save At­lantis and pre­vent war by find­ing a sa­cred tri­dent (oh, there is so very much tri­dent ac­tion), with oc­ca­sional, half-hearted ges­tures of ro­man­tic ban­ter along the way.

Af­ter cen­turies of in­vis­i­bil­ity and peace, Orm and his con­spir­a­tors have had enough of the land­lub­bers above. (Why they weren’t ear­lier pushed over the edge by jet skis or, for that mat­ter, “Bay­watch,” is un­clear.) In one tidal wave of vengeance, he washes the ocean’s garbage and war­ships onto beaches around the world.

But “Aqua­man” is too timid to take this thread se­ri­ously (or even to sub­stan­tially in­clude sea an­i­mals for Aqua­man to, you know, talk to). In­stead we have a tire­some tale of royal power strug­gle that could al­most as eas­ily hap­pen on Kryp­ton or in an­cient Greece, al­beit with­out the ben­e­fit of a float­ing Dafoe.

Wan, the di­rec­tor of the “Saw” fran­chise and “Fu­ri­ous 7,” de­serves both crit­i­cism for soak­ing the film so thor­oughly in kitschy CGI and praise for the glow­ing syn­thetic beauty of At­lantis. The movie zips along too quickly be­fore we get much more than a float-over view of At­lantis. (Many mys­ter­ies, such as how plumbing

func­tions on the seafloor, go unan­swered.) But in al­most “Tron”-like con­tours of lu­mi­nous neon, At­lantis is a cinema world well built, at least on the out­side. But the movie’s only truly visu­ally stun­ning se­quence is a deep-sea chase lit by a lone flare while hordes of fright­ful crea­tures close in.

But both Wan and Mo­moa have a sur­pris­ingly firm grasp of who Aqua­man is, and they ul­ti­mately — more than two hours later — steer their film to­ward sin­cer­ity and away from bom­bast. It’s surely some mea­sure of ac­com­plish­ment that “Aqua­man,” for all its messy grandios­ity, cul­mi­nates in its hero ther­a­peu­ti­cally say­ing “Let’s talk,” and it’s ut­tered not to a manatee but to a brother.

“Aqua­man,” a Warner Bros. re­lease, is rated PG-13 for se­quences of sci-fi vi­o­lence and ac­tion, and for some lan­guage. Run­ning time: 143 min­utes. Two stars out of four.

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