‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ Review: The DCEU’s Unfathomable End
It is not the conclusion anyone would have predicted. It’s surely not the one DC hardcores wanted. This is anything but an epic sendoff. It’s much more the opposite; a self-contained, standalone trifle about a DC B-lister who was most famous before movie stardom as the dude who talked to fish on Super Friends.
Then again, given this how DC’s mega-franchise has been handled (and mishandled) for the last decade, this whimper of a farewell somehow feels right. It also feels like a mess — if an endearing one at times— that has been heavily reworked in the editing room.
The clunkiest scenes are clustered in the first act, which awkwardly reintroduce Aquaman (the charmingly bedraggled Jason Momoa) and his underwater associates — or at least some of his associates. By the time Nicole Kidman shows up as Aquaman’s Aquamama, unannounced in the middle of a chase scene some 45 minutes into the film, I had already written her off and assumed she had decided not to return for the sequel. Nope! She just didn’t appear in the early scenes for some reason.
She’s not the only returning cast member with an oddly truncated role. In between 2018’s Aquaman and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Amber Heard’s Mera married the title character and gave birth to their son. (Aquababy?) And yet she barely spends any time with either of them. Her role in the sequel amounts to a small handful of lines and her CGI double taking part in some action sequences.
Even though the film offers no reason for Mera’s absences, they do allow Momoa’s Aquaman to essentially play the role of single parent, which becomes the thematic focus of Lost Kingdom’s bloated opening. With Mera and Kidman’s Atlanna MIA, that leaves our hero with more time to shoot the breeze with his lighthouse keeper dad (Temuera Morrison), to struggle with his responsibilities as the new king of Atlantis, and to enjoy multiple product placements from the fine people at Guinness. (Not all of Aquaman’s drinking is that pleasant or lucrative; there’s also a literal running gag involving Aquaman getting urine in his mouth.)
Early on, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom seems to be about a former wild man struggling to come to grips with domestic life and responsibilities. Then the next act forgets all of that — all those characters except Aquaman and all those ideas — when Aquaman’s old nemesis Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) shows up with a magical trident and a major chip on his shoulder. (Manta blames Aquaman for the death of his father in the previous movie.) Aquaman says goodbye to his son, his kingly duties, and his wife (who he barely saw to begin with, but whatever) to track down Manta with the help of his estranged brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), the former King of Atlantis, who abused his power and got tossed in an inescapable jail that Aquaman very easily breaks him out of.
Suddenly, the movie is about sibling rivalry and what it takes to be a leader, and the plot morphs into a buddy comedy. The stuffy, regal Orm must learn to co-exist with his scruffy, laid-back bro. You’ll never guess what happens next!
This all takes place about an hour into Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and it’s here that the movie finally recaptures the bright, audacious spirit of the original film. (James Wan served as the director on both projects.) I can’t say I ever got especially invested in Aquaman and Orm’s quest to stop Black Manta, but Momoa and Wilson are such perfectly mismatched actors that these scenes are at least amusing. (Aquaman also picks up a second sidekick in this section: A sentient, chameleonic cephalopod named Topo who is good for even more laughs than Patrick Wilson learning the strange customs of land dwellers while he and Momoa hunt for Manta.)
As long as Momoa and Wilson keep bickering you can almost convince yourself that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a good movie. But their reunion doesn’t get as much screentime as it should, and there are a ton of scenes dedicated to Abdul-Mateen’s one-note villain and his relationship with a morally-conflicted scientist played by Randall Park, who somehow went from a cameo in Aquaman to maybe the third-biggest role in this sequel. Wan devotes a lot of time to Park’s Dr. Shin debating whether or not to help Black Manta; all of it is lifeless and exhausting, and it leaves less room for the visual imagination and freewheeling fun that made the first Aquaman a memorable superhero movie.
Once in a while, that imaginative side does poke through. There’s a witty sequence set in an underwater pirate haven, which is ruled by a bizarre creature voiced by a surprising guest star. And Black Manta eventually sets up shop in a villain lair inspired by Blofeld’s volcano base in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice — right down to the Ken Adam-esque set design and the henchmen all dressed in identical uniforms. But a lot of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom feels like a stale rehash of the good parts of Aquaman.
Warner Bros. and Jason Momoa have made it pretty clear that no matter what DC does next, Aquaman won’t return. The irony of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom being the anticlimactic conclusion of the DC Extended Universe is that these are the characters and the kind of high-energy adventures I would have wanted to see more of in the future. Aquaman and Orm are a lot of fun (so is Kidman’s Atlanna when they give her something to do, which isn’t often). I won’t miss much about the DCEU. But I’ll miss these guys.
-One of the crucial subplots in Aquaman was the star-crossed relationship between Temuera Morrison’s Tom Curry and Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna. They fall in love in the beginning of the film, but then she is forced to return to her underwater kingdom, and she vows that she will return to him someday. And then, at last, in the very final moments of Aquaman she does, and it’s this lovely, emotional reunion. So of course, in this sequel, they have exactly 0 scenes together. Makes sense!
-People will make jokes about the very last scene in the DCEU forever. It will go down in film legend.