Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics
Blockbuster Beat by Matt Lynch Featured Film

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom — James Wan

December 23, 2023

Someday, now that it’s all over, someone’s going to write a big fat tell-all about just what exactly happened to the DCEU, a project with certainly as much potential as the Marvel stuff, but one so grossly mismanaged that the studio and filmmakers destroyed multiple massive tentpole films with second-guessing and endless rewrites and reshoots, and eventually just tossed the whole thing right in the trash. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the final entry in this iteration. Thankfully, despite years of tinkering, it’s not as much of a coffin nail as it could be. In fact, it’s actually sort of fun.

We rejoin Arthur Curry, the King of Atlantis (Jason Momoa), now a father of a baby son conceived with Queen Mera (Amber Heard). His kingdom is mired in bureaucracy, but other than that things seem to be going smoothly. That is, until Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the big bad from the first movie, turns up. Somehow, he’s got hold of ancient Atlantean tech and a massive crew of mercenaries, and he’s still hellbent on avenging the death of his father at Aquaman’s hands. He gets possessed by the spirit of a big black trident called… “the Black Trident,” and then sets about using some weird green stuff called oricalchum to accelerate global warming for reasons it’s honestly too silly to reveal here.

The finest quality that the original film possessed — in fact, maybe the engine that made it work at all — was its unabashed dorkiness. Everyone, thankfully, got together and collectively realized that there was absolutely no way to make Aquaman seem cool and that taking any of it seriously was a terrible idea. That lesson has blessedly been followed for this installment, The Lost Kingdom spends most of its time as a buddy road movie with Arthur bonding with his former enemy, half-brother Orm (an always-game Patrick Wilson), and cracking silly jokes while riding glowing seahorses or goofing off with his octopus sidekick Topo. Yes, you read that right, and no, there’s not enough Topo in this movie. It’s all deeply silly stuff, the film hurtling through its nonsensical plot and caring not one iota for realism or logic. Even its climate-change warnings seem like a bit of a goof; it’s giving the kind of energy you might have found in one of Stephen Sommers’ ’90s-era Mummy flicks. Director James Wan simply has a knack for a level of ludicrousness, which he augments with a pleasingly colorful visual design, and when the action starts happening, it’s at least relatively fluid.

On the other hand, this is obviously a salvage job of epic proportions. Shifting release dates and tales of endless re-shoots and script drafts have dogged this one for years (its first reported screenings were in 2021). Clearly, it’s been heavily tinkered with. Whole entire scenes take place in mostly digital wide shots packed with CG doubles for the actors. Endless gobs of expository dialogue are delivered by the back of someone’s head or during shots establishing locations. Most of Amber Heard’s shots in the climactic action sequences look uncannily like a digital double (let’s not speculate on why they might have cut her from most of the movie). But even for a film created largely from people standing in front of a green screen, The Lost Kingdom feels haphazardly cobbled together; there’s an undeniable mishmash of tones at play, as well as plenty of hiccups in momentum.

Still, given that production nightmare, things could have been a lot worse. Nobody was exactly clamoring for a second Aquaman movie anyway, but the first one made a billion bucks or two, so here we are. Under the circumstances, it’s fair to consider that it might even be the best version of itself that was ever possible. Weirdly, this movie ends with Arthur doing an “I am Aquaman!” mic drop; referencing the (Marvel) movie that jump-started all this superhero stuff in the first place to mark the end of the DC universe seems oddly fitting. Perhaps, we’ve at last reached a real tipping point. At the very least, this version of the franchise is over, and we don’t have to care or think about it anymore, ever again.

DIRECTOR: James Wan;  CAST: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman;  DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros. Pictures;  IN THEATERS: December 22;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 4 min.