AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM (2023)
To defend Atlantis against Black Manta, Aquaman forges an alliance with his imprisoned brother...
Ironically, the tagline for James Wan’s sequel to his $1.1BN-grossing Aquaman (2018) is “the tide is turning”. That’s an understatement for the comic-book movie genre right now, which is struggling to appeal to an audience suffocating from its box office dominance. And it’s doubly true of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), which comes to an ignoble end with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom after a decade spent mostly chasing the tail of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
It’s commonly said that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (hereafter Aquaman 2) struggled because we know this corner of Warner Bros. is being retired, so none of it matters now. I’m not convinced that’s true, as I know people who are unaware the DCEU is ending (or that it was even a thing), but they’ve simply chosen to avoid seeing a movie that feels like it’s not offering anything new and exciting.
Aquaman 2 finds Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) now the ruler of Atlantis, married to Mera (Amber Heard), and dividing his time between dull royal duties and raising their newborn baby son. Meanwhile, David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a.k.a ‘Black Manta’, is still looking to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Aquaman, and stumbles upon a powerful Black Trident that endows him with super-human strength granted by its dormant owner, Kordax, ruler of the titular lost kingdom of Necrus. Kane’s swiftly brainwashed into releasing high quantities of greenhouse gas orichalcum as part of his plan to usurp Aquaman’s throne. And so, Arthur must join forces with his bad brother Orme (Patrick Wilson), by breaking him out of his prison, to defeat this new menace…
This film plays rather like Thor: Ragnarok (2017), in how it’s even more weighted towards the lightweight and comedic vibe that was present before in moderation. The midway development of Arthur and Orme teaming up also evokes the Thor and Loki dynamic in Marvel; so much so the characters evoke the name “Loki” at one point, as the similarities are so stark. And to be fair, the movie’s at its best whenever Patrick Wilson’s around because he’s often the only actor who seems to grasp the tone and is genuinely trying his best in the role.
Jason Momoa, in contrast, seems to have lost the gravitas he once had as Aquaman, seemingly taking inspiration from what Chris Hemsworth did as ‘Fat Thor’ in Avengers: Endgame (2019). It’s initially fun to see Aquaman coping as a sleep-deprived dad and looking a little out of shape, but then you wonder if Momoa decided the character is going to be closer to his real-life persona than ever before and he’s not putting much effort in. Eyebrows are raised when Aquaman spends most of the film in a baggy shirt as if to hide the fact Momoa wasn’t as committed to training sessions down the gym this time around.
There are also some unavoidable issues with Amber Heard not being as available to film because of her trial with ex-husband Johnny Depp, so Meera’s role is diminished and many of her scenes appear to have been given to Temuera Morrison as Arthur’s human dad Tom. It doesn’t hurt the movie too much, but considering Meera was the co-lead of the first film her frequent absences feel a bit strange.
It also feels like a mistake to make a sequel with the same villains involved, only with Orme now helping his brother defeat Black Manta. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II still carries a lot of physical presence, but he’s going through the motions and we’re retreading old ground with his quest for vengeance. The lost kingdom angle is mildly interesting, but the new villain Kordax is reduced to being a green ghost half the time, so feels more like a Sauron-style influence on events than a character we can truly engage with. And I’m still not entirely sure what his master plan was.
Another problem is that the original Aquaman was at least visually stimulating because we’d never seen an underwater superhero movie on that scale before, with all the challenges that present filmmakers in making it work and not look too silly. Its aesthetic and creature designs were phenomenal, but there isn’t much in the sequel that comes close to matching it. We can’t be blown away by the look and feel of Atlantis a second time, so even the new lost kingdom and a few different creatures don’t add enough freshness to the movie. It looks fine and there’s some imagination to its underwater Lord of the Rings vibe, at times, but cumulatively it doesn’t leave a big impression. There’s also nothing here on the same scale as the Aquaman climactic battle, and even Kordax is defeated in a surprisingly abrupt manner.
Long-delayed, it feels like Aquaman 2 just didn’t come together now that director James Wan couldn’t rely on the appeal of how the film looks and sounds, plus Momoa isn’t as invested in the part now the DCEU is being swept aside as it’s perhaps little more than a contractual obligation. God bless Patrick Wilson (a regular in Wan’s films) for giving it his best, as he makes the middle act more bearable, but when your sparring partner is a visibly checked-out Momoa he’s facing a losing battle.
It’s kind of funny that the last scene mirrors a development in Black Panther (2018), and the final moment from Aquaman directly references Iron Man (2008). It’s as if the writers are acknowledging the DCEU was always in the shadow of what Marvel is doing, and only a small number of their movies unequivocally worked (Wonder Woman, Shazam!, The Suicide Squad). We’re due a clean break and reset with James Gunn’s Superman: Legacy in a few years, launching the rebranded DCU, but I don’t know if asking audiences to invest in yet another cinematic universe is going to work. It feels like these types of movies will always be popular, to an extent, but there’s simply too much of it around.
USA • UK • CANADA • AUSTRALIA • ICELAND | 2023 | 124 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: James Wan.
writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (story by James Wan, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Jason Momoa & Thomas Pa’a Sibbett; based on characters from DC).
starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison, Martin Short (voice) & Nicole Kidman.