“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” Doesn’t Care. Neither Should You.
Writing a review of “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” without addressing the elephant in the room is all but impossible. Rumors and anti-Amber Heard sentiments glaringly weigh the DC Extended Universe’s swan song.
In all this, it is crucial to separate a tumultuous past and non-existent future from quality. If any precedent should matter, it should be its 2018 predecessor even as the sequel regresses in every element compared to the former.
The past is not the only thing being unfair in this scenario. Comic book movie precedents have. “The Dark Knight,” “Black Panther” and the Avengers movies have all but spoiled our perception of comic book movies, making us forget that they, by nature, are meant to have a fun time.
“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” clearly understands its place in the genre and reminds us of just that with its awareness of its ridiculousness.
The plot isn’t the strongest–or most developed–of the last four DCEU movies. Messy and with a pacing that could rival Usain Bolt on the tracks, you can tell that some recycling had taken place. Not that it’s surprising but made more suspicious by an excuse for an opening montage.
Two hours is barely enough time for it to sell us the brotherhood theme of Arthur reuniting with Orm (Yes, him!) to prevent a now god-level Black Manta from destroying his home, kingdom, and the planet. And it never will be. The secondary theme of climate change, usually a commendable addition, becomes annoyingly loud and carelessly presented.
Flashbacks to the first movie are woven multiple times, acknowledging the five-year gap since viewers last explored the underwater kingdom.
Interestingly, the film openly acknowledges its deficiencies in substance and character arcs. Instead, it leans on breathtaking visuals, intense action sequences, and the director’s unapologetic goofiness as saviors. Everything about it screams “If the DCEU is going to end with us, all bets are off.”
Everyone (emphasis on “everyone”) is focused on having fun. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing, thinking “Did I just laugh at that?”
Comparisons to Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” are inevitable, particularly concerning levels of quippy dialogue. However, while the latter can be regarded as the S.I. Unit of cringe, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” avoids delivering its campy in lethal doses like the god of thunder does. It knows when to transition from playful banter to more serious moments.
Jason Momoa is having the most fun. Now king, a dad, and managing the responsibilities of the watery throne “Momoa” style, he crashes through the wave with “Yahoos” dotted with smirks.
Although a few may view his brawniness as eccentric and a little too Momoa-ish–advocating for an Arthur Curry who is more Orm-like–the $1.1 billion cume of “Aquaman” (2018) suggests that audiences are more than content watching Momoa play himself instead of the character he was contracted to.
Even the usually grumpy Orm is in on it too, as is the drum-playing-now-turned-tactical octopus; call it a “Cephalopod” if you want to avoid Queen Atlanna’s wrath. Randall Park’s Dr. Shin also gets a quick arc and more of him is always a plus.
If you’re looking for Mera, you’d find her on the fringes of the story, popping her head occasionally when the movie remembers that Arthur Curry has a wife. The reason behind her limited screen time is obvious. Regardless of if it’s due to public pressure or just a victim of a collapsing universe, a little Mera is better than no Mera at all.
Whatever your perception of this movie ends up becoming, there’s no denying that Yahya Abdul-Mateen’s Black Manta, as always, is simply badass–something Patrick Wilson’s Orm gets to discover the hard way.
He is unmistakably one of the brightest (or reddest) characters in a movie riddled with shallow depths. Once relegated to play second fiddle, he has now been promoted to the rank of a climate terrorist.
Gone are his bulgy helmet, exoskeleton suit, and any semblance of restraint or self-control. But even he doesn’t escape the shallow waves that drown this movie. Rather than allowing his anger to fuel raw vengeance, this choice dilutes the impact of his quest for retribution, making his revenge less (what’s the word) …revenge-y.
Given the underwater setting, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” has no choice but to rely heavily on its visual appeal. Fortunately for it, James Wan, a director who understands the narcotic effect of dope visuals on the optical nerves, is at the wheel. And he ensures this sequel is visually sumptuous.
So compelling is the movie’s aesthetic prowess that one might find their eyeballs drooling with joy, leaving the brain wondering if it was the same studio that brought us “The Flash.”
“Avatar: The Way of Water” (2022) with its James Cameron-standard visuals may have, once again, reset the bar for other directors, and would have been filmed underwater if the veteran had taken the reins. However, the soundstage Wan and his crew went for achieves impressive results.
The “Journey to the Center of the Earth”-ing it does, traversing the globe from one bizarre CGI location to another, with strange creatures in vibrant battles, distracts from the murky plot.
James Wan’s fingerprints are omnipresent, and his influence unmistakable even without explicit confirmation. From unexpected explosions punctuating conversations to intentionally vague “somewhere in the…” location tags and precisely calculated action set-pieces, his trademarks from the first movie are regurgitated and he is getting every ounce of entertainment value out of it.
Other times, visuals start to look like a video game, but it’s cool enough that you don’t care. And it doesn’t want you to. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” doesn’t want to be an Oscar contender; another “best thing since ‘The Dark Knight’” with teases and snippets leading to a dead end.
Its primary focus is on delivering an action spectacle reminiscent of the first film, accompanied by an increased dose of Jason Momoa. While having both elements could have been preferable, considering the initial skepticism and undue criticism the movie faced before its release, it remains a commendable effort.
Approaching the theaters with an unwillingness to embrace its light-heartedness is pointless. Or you might as well question the existence of a drumming octopus, the aerodynamic integrity of jellyfish-like machines, and the instant operation of an ancient submarine by Manta’s crew without prior training. You could also gawp at how 1980s sonar technology could detect submarines from kilometers away but the super-duper Atlantean tech struggles to locate a big slow sub from a few hundred meters yards.
In a film marred by shallowness, with Atlantis itself being the only thing with any depth, the overall experience is still enjoyable enough to overlook these issues temporarily. While “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” may not be the grand farewell a troubled cinematic universe deserves, it manages to bring the DCEU to a close on a fair note.
Warning to comic book movies: just because it’s the new normal to do a post-credit scene doesn’t mean you MUST. If we’re to wait for three or so minutes, it’d better be worth it!
Release Date: December 22, 2023
Runtime: 2 hours and 6 minutes
Streaming Service: None. Cinematic Release
Director: James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Randal Park, Vincent Regan, Jani Zhao, Dolph Lundgren, Temura Morrison, Martin Short and Indya Moore