Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom begins promisingly enough. The DC and Warner Bros. logos are given a crusty, underwater makeover that gets you in the right mood. As a group of mercenaries prepares to do their dirty work, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) stares them down. His gaze grows steely. Ass-kicking is certainly in store. Only- the scene cuts to Arthur smashing two action figures together as he relays the story to his newborn son Arthur, Jr. The two scenes are then cross-cut together haphazardly. The obnoxious needle drop of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” grates the ears. Everything funny about him telling this story to his son and everything cool about him fighting evil-doers is flattened into an unrecognizable pile of sludge. This is the experience of watching Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.
Released in 2018, the first Aquaman became the highest grossing film based on a DC character. Although it maintains a divided reputation among film goers, I appreciated the commitment of director James Wan (Insidious, Saw) to making something that off-the-wall. It truly resembled a comic book.
Times have very much changed since its release. After the debacle that was the rollout of The Flash and underperformance of Blue Beetle, not to mention the upcoming new DC Films regime led by James Gunn; the DC Extended Universe is ending on a Hail Mary with one of its more popular characters. Almost none of that remains in James Wan’s just plain sad follow-up.
[Warning: Spoilers for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom below!]
The good of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (before the bad and the ugly)
It’s no fun to trash a film that so many talented people worked on, so let’s start with the positive. As always, James Wan brings to life an utter visual masterpiece. Through the wide-eyed cinematography of Don Burgess and tremendous visual effects work, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is undeniable eye candy. Every frame is so dense. It’s like an eye spy of incredible creature design and rich aquatic texture.
With the sound off, this thing would nearly play like gangbusters. Although the action sequences take a noticeable dip in quality, there are still enough frenetic showdowns to get the blood pumping. A third act fight sequence between Arthur and Black Manta almost rivals that of him and Orm (Patrick Wilson) from the first film.
The cast here is mostly all game, too. Momoa continues to have bro-tastic charisma out the wazoo. Supporting players such as Amber Heard as Mera, Temuera Morrison as Arthur Curry’s dad, beefed-up roles for a cheeky Patrick Wilson and a Goldblum-level neurotic Randall Park as Doctor Stephen Shin, seem to be having a good time.
No doubt about this, though, the MVP is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as David Kane/Black Manta. He runs away with the movie. His mix of Shakespearean intensity and go-for-broke mustache-twirling Saturday morning cartoon villainy really lets him cut loose. It’s not hard to see why James Wan wanted to center the now cancelled The Trench spin-off around him.
About the story for the King of Atlantis this time around…
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom‘s story is practically nonsensical. But I’ll try my best to explain it. Arthur Curry attempts to juggle being a father to the newborn Arthur Jr. and King of Atlantis at the same time. Meanwhile, Black Manta acquires a mythical artifact known as “The Black Trident” to help get his revenge on Aquaman for killing his father.
Five month time jump. Manta’s activities have apparently exasperated global warming by mining an Atlantean resource known as orichalcum. Doctor Stephen Shin is involved in helping Manta for reasons that are decidedly vague. Also, the Trident is connecting Black Manta to an ancient evil. Also, there’s something about a Pirate King in there. Oh yeah, and Aquaman, for convoluted reasons, has to team up with his exiled brother Orm to save the world.
Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick has certainly written a few movies I’ve liked in the past. Here’s looking at you, Orphan, and the first Aquaman. Who knows if it’s the script’s fault or the unacceptable edit, but there are far too many plot lines going on and almost none of them get focus. Just as one plot line begins, another takes over. None of them, save for the precious few bits of introspection for Black Manta we get, have the chance to be interesting.
Everything is so big, there are so many moving parts, that it all feels so small and inconsequential. It’s even sadder because James Wan’s silliness played earnestly in the original is totally gone; replaced instead by an attempt at snarky self-awareness so unfunny (I counted one unintentional laugh out of the non-stop barrage of jokes), it’s just sad.
Final thoughts on Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom
Thankfully or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, it’s obvious who the blame for this film falls on: Warner Bros. The notoriously hands-on with the DCEU studio has their fingerprints all over this thing. Reshoots are incredibly noticeable. The tone changes many times within scenes. It has no idea whether it wants to be an action film, a comedy, a bromance, or a politically-charged screed against the way we treat our notions. Therefore, it’s neither and all of them at once.
Editor Kirk Morri can’t have had an easy time. The film was allegedly test screened over and over again, with various iterations of Batman included at some point, only for the film to have no trace of them. The result is an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach that’s impossible to follow. Worse, it’s deeply insecure of its own existence.
A big symbol of what went wrong here is the use of Amber Heard. Her Mera is the co-lead of the previous Aquaman and a fan-favorite. Due to a media frenzy surrounding the trial and abuse allegations both against her and her ex-husband Johnny Depp, which we will not be commenting on, they have essentially reduced her role to a barely-present cameo. She barely speaks at all, despite being the mother to Arthur Jr.. Especially considering the severe harassment she faces online, it’s pretty upsetting that this call would be made, and it’s a glaring elephant in the room that seems to have been done to appease some audiences.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a movie so desperate to be liked that it appeals to no one. It’s a tornado of mismanagement, tonal shifts, a story that doesn’t make a lick of sense, and a complete lack of identity that it will go down as one of the biggest disasters in recent superhero film history.
Fans who want to pay their respects to the end of the DCEU might find some fun performances and neat visuals to take solace in, but hopefully the cast and crew are off to greener pastures. James Wan’s DCEU capper ends on a sour note that echoes all throughout the seven seas.
My rating for this film
★★ / ♥
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is in theaters now. Are you planning to see this movie soon? What do you think of it? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or on The Cosmic Circus Discord!