Movie Review: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

The DC Extended Universe never had much good will, and it is well and truly past the time that it has squandered it all. Its best movie was a forbidden one that was never supposed to exist, the misunderstood subject of unconstructive memes. Most everything else has tarnished with time, and the project spawned several underwhelming or plain bad movies that underperformed at the box office. From a higher level, Warner Bros Discovery made mystifying calls, like cancelling the well-cast Batgirl while retooling and releasing the troubled and terrible The Flash to an indifferent audience.

2018’s Aquaman was amusing and satisfying, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom retains a good deal of its creative team, so you would expect it to be good. However, this movie was doomed almost from the start, as the DCEU became micromanaged to the point that any individual would not have been able to shift the needle on it. That Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is even okayish is a minor miracle, but that’s really not good enough with the amount of money involved. At least now we know this chapter in film history is over (yet a new one struggles to be born).

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, Fast X), has been Aquaman, King of Atlantis and ruler of the seas, for four years. He hates the job and its demands, but he takes comfort in the love of his wife Mera (Amber Heard, In the Fire) and baby son. When climate change starts progressing at an alarming rate, Arthur realises that his old nemesis David Kane, the Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ambulance) is trying to access the fabled Lost Kingdom of Necrus and destroy the planet. His only hope of stopping Kane is to stage a prison break and team up with his estranged (and previously evil) brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, Insidious: The Red Door).

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has a relatively simple storyline and, thanks to director James Wan (Malignant) having no idea where it would ultimately fall in continuity, it has no links to anything but its immediate title predecessor. Screenwriter and frequent Wan collaborator David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) theoretically had the freedom to tell any story that he wanted, but the two of them worked together with either focus groups or a soulless board for the end result of a movie that inexplicably opens and closes with Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild”. It leans very heavily on Momoa being amiable and Wilson being a consummate professional, because any meaning between them is far greater in their physicality than anything they’re made to say. 

The most memorable thing about the script is its references to Guinness, once in the dialogue and repeatedly on screen in both cans and branded glasses. Johnson-McGoldrick’s script unfortunately makes Arthur lean closer to the Whedon brand of the character rather than Snyder, and most of the jokes won’t land even for children. Given the amount of tinkering and reshoots, it’s impossible to even guess at what the film’s original mission statement was supposed to be, but Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has made it to the screen almost entirely devoid of personality.

Nicole Kidman (TV’s Faraway Downs) shows up once more as Arthur’s mother, in a strangely action oriented turn that probably meant she didn’t have to have much of a physical presence on set. Kidman only highlights the film’s lack of gravitas and is a poor substitute for Willem Dafoe’s character, unceremoniously killed off offscreen (a huge insult given that Dafoe even showed up for The Snyder Cut). Franchise newcomer Randall Park (Totally Killer) has a thanklessly expository role, and for “political reasons”, Amber Heard is almost entirely absent from the movie. The ensemble ultimately makes the film feel like a collection of parts rather than a cohesive whole, and Patrick Wilson is left to do all of the heavy lifting once the script decides against properly building a quest for its hero.

Aesthetically, this is two movies. The underwater scenes are of low enough quality that it feels like everyone except for James Cameron should give it up; above ground Wan occasionally throws automatons and beasts that move as if they were Harryhausen stop motion creations, in a move that actually feels bold and daring. The old Necrus tech is a fascinating pastiche of 60s retro future tech via the stone age, including the wholly impractical equivalent of reel-to-reel computers. If this had been consistently applied as the movie’s mission statement, it could have made for an overall visual treat, but the rest of the effects are indifferent at best and Necrus itself is the Emerald City via Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. One doesn’t ask for complete originality in these films, but enough points of difference would be welcome. Somehow the budgets get larger and the effects get worse, an unfortunate trend industry wide. That Wan got to put any stamp at all on the look and feel of the movie is a triumph but represents a wider tragedy of what might have been. It’s the sort of project where you know the people involved can make a good movie, but they’ve either chosen not to or were unable to.

With Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the grab bag of DC superhero movies that began with Man of Steel has ended after a decade. It’s not as ignominious as it could have been, but there’s nothing to recommend this movie. Everyone is desperately flailing to make it work, while paradoxically being beyond caring. On the surface, Warner Bros Discovery tripled their investment on these fifteen films, but at what cost to the movie going public? Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom feels more like good riddance than a fond farewell.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opened in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2023.

Directed by: James Wan.

Starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Dolph Lundgren and Nicole Kidman.

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