Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom | Not All is Lost

by Andrew Parker

If Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is truly the end of this current incarnation of the extended DC Comics cinematic universe, at least things are going out on a lighthearted and fun note. With a major overhaul on the horizon, the future looks uncertain for Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry, but even if this is a send off, everyone involved with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom can leave with their heads mostly held high and few regrets. The first stand-alone Aquaman adventure was a pleasing and enjoyable diversion amid a glut of other DCU attempts that weren’t much fun at all, and returning director James Wan delivers more of the same. It’s nothing groundbreaking and almost shamelessly derivative, but as a silly big budget blockbuster, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom hits a popcorn movie sweet spot.

Aquaman, now the king of the Atlantean empire, is trying to find a healthy work/life balance between being a diplomat, a superhero, and a new dad to a baby that’s developing a lot of his own special powers. Arthur is starting to realize that being king isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and when it comes to matters of state that require tact and people skills, he gets bored and frustrated quickly. But an old threat bent on revenge has resurfaced and become more powerful than ever. Professional mercenary David Hyde (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), also known as Manta, was attempting to acquire antiquated Atlantean technology in the arctic to help rebuilt his super-suit, but instead comes across a mysterious black trident forged by an ancient evil. The trident all but possesses Manta, making him more powerful, kicking his quest to avenge the death of his father into higher gear, and entering into a pact to restore a lost kingdom of the dead to power. Needing help to defeat his former enemy, Arthur turns to his imprisoned brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), the former ruler of Atlantis who’s still none too pleased with Aquaman’s leadership. Arthur and Orm enter into an uneasy alliance in a bid to save the entire planet from a potentially world ending climate crisis being triggered by Manta.

On one hand, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is exactly what viewers expect it will be, but on the other, it’s still a welcome surprise that it’s still quite the charmer. Momoa gets to strut around confidently, cracking one liners, flexing his muscles, destroying villainous henchmen like they were ants, and generally charming everyone in sight. There are plenty of large scale set pieces and action sequences that dazzle and delight, including the underwater equivalent of a heist and car chase and numerous impressive run ’n gun melees, all of which look quite good if viewing the film in 3D (a rare case these days where the few dollar upgrade might be worthwhile). Arthur and Orm travel far and wide to save the kingdom, but they never stay in one place too long. Get in. Accomplish what needs to be done. On to the next bit. The plot of this might be overstuffed, but there’s a distinct efficiency to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s script that’s admirable.

It’s also evident that environmentally minded Momoa had a lot more input into the story this time out, as Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom plays to even more of the actor’s strengths than before. There’s a lot of heavy handed subtext in here about climate change, the destruction of the oceans, dependency on fossil fuels, and coming together during “a plague” that’s mentioned a couple of times, but curiously never followed up on. While a little food for thought is never a bad thing, and the messages are mostly noble, the preachiness of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom always feels at odds with the wisecracking, swashbuckling monster movie that Wan wants to make. Thankfully, Momoa is just as eager to lean into the silly stuff.

The plot is highly indebted to the Thor sequels (which even get directly referenced here, so at least everyone involved proves they’re cognizant of what they’re doing) and Black Panther (particularly with regard to Manta’s motivations and Arthur’s desire to make Atlantis known to the surface world as part of a planned resource exchange). The chemistry between Momoa and Wan regular Wilson is pitch perfect, and Mateen’s villain is strong, capable, and terrifying. Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman, as Arthur’s wife and mother, respectively, still don’t have a ton to do in terms of getting memorable dialogue, but they get moments where they can capably help save the day. Randall Park also makes for a nice addition as a scientist who’s regretting his alliance with Manta. Viewers who don’t mind riffs on similar stories and characters, provided that they’re entertaining ones, will still be able to kick back and enjoy this one thanks to the efforts of the cast and Wan’s gleeful ingenuity behind the camera.

No matter where James Gunn and company head with the next incarnation of the DCU, they should be advised to keep Wan around for a bit longer. No one else (outside of Gunn, with his take on The Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan) was able to produce entries in this series that were as exciting, fun, and delightfully unpretentious as Wan, whose horror movie roots help to keep things interesting across his two Aquaman films. In this one, there are clear nods to the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Sam Raimi (with some truly frightening looking zombies at several points), and Stuart Gordon. There’s a love for practical effects and sets that shines through, which is a big risk for a film that’s largely set underwater, and they all blend seamlessly with the nicely rendered digital elements. Wan can credibly blow minds with digital mastery, but also elicit knowing smiles and chuckles when he leaves in takes where people are clearly standing amid carpeting and foam rocks. Wan’s love for this kind of material and a wide variety of filmmaking styles shows through, and he’s a perfect match for Momoa’s enthusiasm in the lead role.

The climactic showdown is slightly disappointing and builds to an abrupt “that’s it?” moment, but the journey up to that point is so breezy that it’s hard to get upset about it. There’s kind of a dangling thread to leaving the door open for Momoa’s Aquaman to return, but also nothing concrete enough to signify that additional instalments are in the pipeline. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom arrives in theatres curiously as a lame duck in a franchise that really fizzled and sputtered out without ever getting a proper blow off, but at least the film itself never feels phoned in or resigned to fate. It goes out fighting, and makes sure the audience is good and well entertained.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, December 22, 2023.

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