In “Aquaman,” the latest whack-bam-pow comic book movie, Arthur Curry treads cautiously toward the prospect of being ruler of the waterworld. He’s much more gung-ho in his campaign for another title: King of the Quips. It’s a crown that doesn’t quite fit.
Abandoned by his mom, the Queen of Atlantis, at an early age, Curry (Jason Momoa) seems to have spent more time in a tattoo parlor than on Tinder. His only friend is his father, a borderline-drunk lighthouse operator, who still strolls out to the dock every morning in hopes that the love of his life will swim back up to the surface.
His half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), has had it up to here with landlubbers turning his oceans into a filthy Jacuzzi and vows to cause havoc for anyone living above sea level. And then there’s the wrath of a pesky submarine pirate, a vocation your community college counselor never told you about.
Aquaman treats it all like he just swallowed a bad clam. “I’m missing happy hour for this,” Curry says as he wraps up the first of his battles, showing little evidence that he’s irked by mommy issues, massive genocide or the fact the Indian Ocean has terrible cellphone reception.
As he delivers his quips, Aquaman is simply swimming in the same current as his contemporaries, almost all of whom appear to have been bitten by a radioactive Joan Rivers. Even Thor and Batman, traditionally two of the superhero club’s most sullen members, have recently acquired the power of wit.
Momoa is an amiable enough performer — he did a fine job playing off his tough guy persona earlier this month while hosting “Saturday Night Live” — but he’s no Ryan Reynolds. Heck, he’s not even Roger Moore. But at least he gets some lines to nibble at.
The film’s writers, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, fail to hand off any comic relief duties to the rest of the cast, although Willem Dafoe, as a not-so-loyal sea general, delivers one good zinger. Nicole Kidman’s radiant queen gets zero.
Amber Heard could have been a viable sparring partner, but the dialogue for her as Mera, a king’s rebellious daughter and Aquaman’s romantic interest, is drowned out by wooden declarations (“Sometimes you have to do what’s right, even if your heart breaks”) and overshadowed by a mop of shocking red hair and comely camera shots. She might as well have been played by a mantis shrimp.
The only memorable scene stealer? An octopus that can play the drums.
At least director James Wan (“Furious 7”) has some fun. Most of the fight scenes — and there are many — owe more to the WWE than to DC Comics, particularly during a trident-to-trident bout between the two brothers with a raucous crowd jeering and cheering every stab.
While expertly weaving in an origin story through flashback, Wan winks at “Star Wars,” “The Karate Kid,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Romancing the Stone” and “National Treasure.” There are so many pop-culture nods that you almost expect our hero to bump into SpongeBob SquarePants.
Wan has a great visual eye or, at very least, a master’s degree in CGI. His complex shots of sunken Atlantis, best enjoyed in 3-D, suggest a Busby Berkeley musical assembled on LSD. The above-water sequences are equally dazzling. The best of the bunch has Aquaman and Mera scampering across the rooftops of Sicily, barely outrunning the spray of some high-tech water guns. No, the weapons don’t make any sense, but this is a story about a dude who talks to dolphins, so just go with it.
You’re also bound to be wowed by the scene that shows the destruction of Atlantis, a visual feast that must have taken a Roman army of animators to cook up.
All the action is supposed to climax with Aquaman’s attempt to attain the ultimate weapon, an all-powerful trident guarded by a mysterious leviathan that could be a cousin of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug in “The Hobbit” movies. But Wan didn’t use Cumberbatch. He chose a character voiced by ... Julie Andrews. The showdown is a mismatch.
Perhaps the casting was an attempt at a joke. If so, it fails just as miserably as watching Mera accept a bouquet of flowers — and then promptly treat them like a midafternoon snack.
At least those bits give Aquaman a chance to catch his breath and think up his next rejoinder.
Constantly facing death is easy. Comedy is hard.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431
★★★ out of 4 stars Rating: PG-13, sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.