PLOT: Aquaman (Jason Momoa) finds his peaceful reign as King of Atlantis cut short when his former enemy, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is imbued with the power of the evil Black Trident. Bent on destroying Aquaman’s family, our hero must turn to an unlikely ally, his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson).
REVIEW: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has been a surprisingly controversial sequel. One would think that because it’s following up a billion-dollar smash and reuniting a well-loved director in James Wan with a well-loved leading man in Jason Momoa, it would have been a slam dunk. But, the film has faced a staggering amount of behind-the-scenes drama, including reshoots, release date delays, and lousy test screenings (which began two years ago). Plus, it’s been through no less than three studio regimes, and that’s not even counting the fact that one of the stars, Amber Heard, has been seemingly cancelled by an angry public following the civil trial with Johnny Depp. Plus, a new superhero fatigue has resulted in movies like The Flash and The Marvels flopping at the box office.
So, how do Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom fare despite all of that? Pretty poorly, actually. I was rooting for this movie as I am fond of James Wan, but whatever magic he brought to the first film has been scrubbed away in this limp sequel. Right from the get-go, you get the sense that you’re watching a movie that’s been focus-grouped to death, with it having the same limp “catching up with me, Aquaman” style narration that seems to be a given in superhero movies these days, with it present in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Shazam; Fury of the Gods and The Flash, as well as Thor: Love and Thunder and God knows how many others. Perhaps a fresh approach is needed?
What’s wrong with this sequel is how limp and uninspired it feels, with it utterly lacking the charm that made the first movie work so well. That film had just the right amount of silliness, right down to the song choices, which included Depeche Mode and a Pitbull cover of Toto’s Africa, which sounds like a wrong choice for a superhero flick but, for some reason, worked in the world James Wan was creating. He didn’t take it seriously, and that vibe allowed us to have fun with the world he was making.
By contrast, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is just another superhero movie, with familiar needle drops and some genuinely inane dialogue, mainly from Black Manta, who’s been reinvented as a wisecracking villain. Jason Momoa is a game Arthur Curry, but they also let him cut too loose with the wisecracks, none of which are funny. In this one, he’s a new dad juggling his infant son with his new duties as the king of Atlantis. Amber Heard’s Mera is back – kinda – in a weird role that feels like it was tacked on to the final cut as if no one knew how much she should be in it, so they were covering their bases. It’s easy to imagine a shorter version of the movie without her, although she’s pretty prominent in this version – at times. It’s strange because her role feels more extensive than expected and inconsequential, which is a weird combo.
She fares better than Willem Dafoe’s Vulko, written out in a cheesy, offhand way, while Nicole Kidman looks like she only filmed for a few days. It’s pretty hilarious to see her playing Patrick Wilson’s mom despite only being a few years older than him.
If Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom works, it’s due to Wilson, who switches from being an antagonist this time to more of an anti-hero. Wan promised this would be the Tango & Cash of superhero movies, but he didn’t deliver. Momoa gets the chance to crack wise and make jokes, but Wilson mostly has to play his part straight, as he’s supposed to be regal, being a former king. There should have been more of an emotional core to their relationship and some actual stakes, but this does the typical superhero thing where people seem to die only to be revived moments later. There’s no edge to it- and if there was, it was sanded off in the reshoots. The CGI also seems weaker this time, with the underwater hair particularly annoying in a way it wasn’t in the first film. Part of that may be because it has the misfortune of coming out so hot on the heels of Avatar: The Way of Water, which changed the way underwater scenes could look on-screen, making these seem archaic by comparison.
In the end, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom feels like a dull slog, with action sequences that lack any bite and a complex mythology that’s hard to invest in as it feels tacked on. It seems to be placing a bow on the DCEU with an ending that seems a bit like a farewell to this era of DC movies, but it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. This is a disappointing follow-up to a pretty excellent superhero movie. Hopefully, Wan licks his wounds and returns to making quirky, weird horror movies – a genre he seems much happier in.