The DCEU emits its last gasp—or perhaps gurgle—with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The long-gestating second entry sees Jason Momoa as the superhero, and though Warner Bros. has positioned it as a holiday tentpole, the finished movie might also leave the studio underwater.
Since the events of 2018’s Aquaman, Arthur (Momoa) has taken his place as King of Atlantis, married his sweetheart Mera (Amber Heard), and had a son. Apropos of nothing, he’s also grown a dad-bod. Though Atlantis glows with strange, undersea technology and wild-looking merpeople populating the city, Arthur prefers spending his time with his aging dad (Temuera Morrison) in the garage of an old sea shanty, guzzling beer and watching TV. The choice activity for any superpowered royal.
Rise of Black Manta
Arthur’s happy domestic life gets interrupted by the re-emergence of David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate bent on revenge against Aquaman for the death of his father in the first film. In his quest to discover the location of Atlantis, Black Manta discovers an ancient trident linked to a power source that can wipe out the undersea kingdom. The catch: the plan involves heating the Earth, which will also release a nasty race of Lovecraftian mermen. Rather than mobilize his undersea army, Aquaman opts to enlist the help of his brother, the Oceanmaster Orm (Patrick Wilson), who rots in a dry prison after his own attack on Atlantis in the first film.
Got all that? Despite the convoluted set-up, director James Wan constructs a simple plot, spending most of the runtime leaping from one action sequence punctuated by goofy one-liners to the next. Momoa, ever game to grin and drop a snarky line, delivers an action-hero performance in the vein of old Arnold Schwarzenegger pictures. Those don’t involve acting in the traditional sense, so much as mugging for the camera to overplayed classic rock songs.
Then again, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom doesn’t really have a grip on Arthur as a character. Comic book characters have a plastic quality to them. Different writers can mold their personalities to fit different kinds of stories. Aquaman stories, at their best, examined the character in the context of a reluctant defender, an arrogant warrior with contempt for the surface dwellers he protects. Momoa nailed that characterization in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Here, he feels more like a watered-down (excuse the phrase) version of Thor in the MCU.
Indeed, director Wan—perhaps at the behest of James Gunn and Warner Bros.–seems to want to emulate Taika Waititi’s Thor movies. Much as Thor grew a dad bod, sired a moppet, and had little interest in ruling over his kingdom, Aquaman has become an avatar for all the middle-aged dads in the audience. He can’t have any character depth or real internal conflict, as that might alienate the audience, or worse, force viewers to confront their own. Wan also employs Waititi’s overuse of humor, needle drops and goofy aliens (or in this case, fish people) to make up for a plot both convoluted and superficial. Don’t expect any real philosophical or moral questions here. Wan is too busy filming a singing fish band.
Under the Sea
That doesn’t mean The Lost Kingdom doesn’t have its graces. The movie has some splendid production design and action setpieces, including an underwater freeway chase and a city made up of pirate ships. Wilson and Abdul-Mateen both deserve credit for going right ahead and giving performances more compelling than the movie around them. Wilson, in particular, brings so much to the Orm-Arthur relationship that it becomes the film’s most interesting subplot. Amber Heard claimed to have reduced screentime, courtesy of her legal woes with ex Johnny Depp, but she has a bigger role than costars Dolph Lundgren and Nicole Kidman. The movie doesn’t give her much to do in terms of range, but she does a fine job with what Wan asks of her.
But for all the color, effects, and wild imagery, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom never finds enough originality to have an identity of its own. Much like Arthur himself, so much of the movie feels derivative. Black Manta’s volcano lair seems lifted from a Bond movie, while the surrounding island (which features giant insects and animals for some reason) looks borrowed from King Kong. Black Manta, though an interesting character, also resembles a Bond villain, right down to having a reluctant scientist (Randall Park) and a team of nameless underlings led by a femme fatale. A city of demonic merpeople might as well have carbon-copied one from Lord of the Rings, right down to the architecture and color scheme. Some of the humor—characters eating roaches and at least five urine jokes in the first reel—also induce more cringes than laughter.
Kids may have fun with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’s crude humor, bright visuals, and cutaways from Momoa shouting profanity. Parents craving validation through a story that plays like something out of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel also might enjoy it. Everyone else though will likely shrug it off as the cloying cartoon it is.
Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, like the rest of the DCEU, once held a lot of promise before corporate meddling, creative turnover, and reactionary decisions reduced it to a pandering mess. Since Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom allegedly marks the end to that continuity, succeeded by one overseen by James Gunn, fans should pray that Warner Bros. serves up an Aquaman that smells a bit less like fish.
Rating: 6/10 Specs
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom arrives in cinemas on December 22. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.