Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023, dir. James Wan)

by | Dec 22, 2023

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 124 mins

UK Distributor: Warner Bros

UK Release Date: 21 December 2023

WHO’S IN AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM?

Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Randall Park, Temuera Morrison, Vincent Regan, Jani Zhao, Indya Moore, Pilou Asbæk, John Rhys-Davies, Martin Short

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

James Wan (director, producer), David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (writer), Rob Cowan and Peter Safran (producers), Rupert Gregson-Williams (composer), Don Burgess (cinematographer), Kirk M. Morri (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Momoa) makes an unlikely alliance to save the kingdom of Atlantis…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM?

In a way, I kind of feel sorry for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Despite it being a follow-up to the DCEU’s only billion-dollar hit, director James Wan’s sequel has been hit by several waves of bad luck, from online backlash surrounding the involvement of a particular supporting actor, to reports of lead Jason Momoa showing up to set completely drunk, to a lengthy post-production phase that included multiple reshoots (including a couple of potential cameos) and low audience test scores. The cherry on top, though, is the fact that it is now the final film of the current DCEU before it is revamped under new studio heads James Gunn and Peter Safran, meaning that nothing in this movie is consequential, and that there is most likely no future for this character and performance in its current form.

All of that negative buzz, incidentally, for a movie that is completely and utterly the definition of “meh”. It certainly isn’t good, but it’s also not completely bad either. The film just exists, which in a way is kind of a worse reaction than either good or bad, but after everything it’s been through, it’s almost miraculous it exists at all.

The film picks up on Momoa’s Arthur Curry as he’s settling into two different roles: one, as the King of the underwater realm of Atlantis; and two, as a father to his infant son Arthur Jr. with his wife Mera (Amber Heard). However, the vengeful mercenary David Kane (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) comes across a mythical Black Trident that possesses him with enough power to attack Atlantis, as well as the rest of the planet’s climate with a large amount of greenhouse gas-producing orichalcum reserves. This prompts Arthur to break out his imprisoned half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) and have him help track down Kane in order to stop his plan, with the two eventually stumbling on the lost kingdom of Necrus where an ancient force is keen on breaking loose and reigniting war – that is, if Kane can’t be stopped first.

From the opening five or so minutes, it is blatantly apparent that this was a film that was heavily tampered with in post-production. Multiple sequences are strung together rather haphazardly with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” on the soundtrack, including an opening fight between Momoa’s Aquaman and a group of pirates which I’m fairly certain was meant to be the original cold open, and a much more comedic montage of him falling asleep during diplomatic talks in Atlantis and being pissed on by his baby son, all of which screams of being added in reshoots. I’m not going to lie, this opening section is pretty rough to sit through, as it’s not just tonally all over the map with some very questionable effects – how is this now the second DC movie this year to have creepy CGI babies in the first few minutes?! – but in terms of preparing the viewer for what’s to come, it’s shockingly off-putting.

Luckily, the film does steady itself shortly afterwards and from there on, but much of what follows is pretty generic. There’s the humourless bad guy defined exclusively by their hatred for the main character, the buddy-cop banter between Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson, the villain’s sidekick who has a change of heart and wants to team with the heroes, and even a secret big bad with plans to take over the world etc. It’s all fairly standard stuff, with there almost being some moments of inspiration such as an island that the main characters visit at one point that comes close to being James Wan’s version of Kong: Skull Island, but it’s ultimately nothing that you haven’t seen before.

In addition, the absolute overload of CGI, even in scenes where such a level of effects isn’t necessarily required, constantly shatters the intended illusion of this being a world where just about anything is possible, from vast underwater societies to islands populated by giant insects and mutated flora, because it all just looks like one big, somewhat ugly-looking cartoon. Say what you will about Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which was also coated in endless CG graphics, but it was at least interesting to look at, and had a bit more going on than just the regular old superheroics.

That film also had a slightly better emotional connection with its characters, something that few of the ones here are fortunate enough to have. Only Patrick Wilson’s Orm is given a decent enough redemption arc, as formulaic as it may be, while others just coast by with expository lines that they admirably try and make sound credible. Momoa, meanwhile, leans hard into his established laid-back surfer dude take on Aquaman, for a reprisal where the actor has clearly been given freer rein to just be himself on-screen rather than the DC superhero (something which Momoa, who also has a story credit on this film, appears to take for granted).

That’s nothing, however, compared to the treatment of Amber Heard’s Mera that isn’t unlike how they sidelined Jar Jar Binks in Attack of the Clones, with the character who was such a major part of the first film now having little to no interaction with her on-screen husband, or anyone else for that matter as she is given almost zero dialogue in scenes where she is present but noticeably ignored by everyone. I have no idea if this reduced role was a result of the actor’s legal woes or was always part of the creative plan, but whether you’re on her side or not, it’s still disgraceful to see such a waste of this character.

Ultimately, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is not good enough to warrant your full attention, but also not bad enough to completely avoid it altogether. It more or less encapsulates how much of this now defunct DCEU has been, with a few high points but also a lot of low ones, and as genuinely great as some of these movies have been, it’s an honest relief that this universe has reached its end. Now, with Gunn and Safran at the helm, there can be a much stronger focus on establishing a coherent cinematic universe, one that’s far more consistent with its tone, style and overall quality, as well as actually allowing some of these iconic characters to just be the icons we know them to be.

Regardless of how the new DCU ends up being, it’s almost guaranteed to be an improvement on some of the more recent DC offerings, including this one which, despite not being nearly as awful as The Flash, still ended up being a damp squid.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is an unremarkable conclusion to the DCEU that has a few moments of inspiration which are largely drowned out by generic CG-coated plotting and inconsistent character work.

Two out of five stars

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